WE FOUND THE LAST WILD WEST
Here was the cattle-grazing country, stretching for miles from the shadows of the craggy Itchas* For Panhandle it lacked only two things: gear for a king-size ranch and the soft touch of a woman—like the girl in Bella Coola
RICHMOND P. HOBSON JR.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED: Rich Ilohson and Panhandle Phillips, two cowboys from Wyoming, together with Tommy Holte, a British Columbian, have breasted the barrier of the Itcha and Algak mountains in northern B.C. to discover a legendary cattle range that staggers the imagination. Here, penniless and far from civilization, in a land no white man has seen before, they plan to set up one of the largest ranches on the continent.
ONE AFTERNOON as we worked in the corral Pan skidded a fence log into place, dropped Big George’s shank, unhooked his rope singletree, and walked over to me. “Sit down, friend,” he said. “The time has come to do some heavy thinkin’ and some fast actin’.” I sat down.
“Look, friend,” continued the Top Hand, “we’ve got to get a pack trail through to Anahim, land a mowing machine which weighs nearly eight hundred pounds, a ten-foot rake, iron stove, nails, wire, tools—even windows—on this ground before haytime. We’ll have to pick up this equipment in Bella Coola. That’s a long ways away when it comes down to pack horses, cuttin’ a new trail and totin’ in heavy machinery.”
“Tomorrow the three of us will cut a trail through the heavy timber across the creek,” Pan said. “We’ll swamp it out due south toward the mountains. Our figurin’ says that Anahin Lake ain’t any more than sixty miles from here, and that’s the way to get there not around those mountains and the muskeg, the way we came in.”
The Top Hand was silent for a moment, looking at the toe of his boot. “I figure Fm the boy to hit that country. I’ll drive fourteen head of horses south toward the split between the Algaks and the Itchas, and I’ll get to Anahim. Bronco Bryant will be ready to throw in with me, and we’ll pick up a few extra horses around Anahim and pound them to the coast. If I leave day after tomorrow I should be on the ocean in maybe fourteen days travelin’. Andy Christenson said he’d have a MasseyHarris mower and rake, anvil, forge and stoves and all that kind of stuff put aside for us in Bella Coola.
“Bronco and I should make the trip back from Bella Coola to the Blackwater in 20 days. That means I’ll be gone a month and a week, countin’ packin’ up and restin’ the horses in Bella Coola.”
I looked gloomily at the Top Hand. “What about the money, boy?”
“What do ya mean money? What’s that?” Pan
snorted. “I’ll get back here with that pack-train load of machinery. There ain’t gonna be anything to it at all.”
And so it was that around June 17 I waved “Good luck—good riding” to the Top Hand, far up the timbered slopes at the base of the Box Canyon, and as I swung my horse about I saw the sun-blackened, eagle-like face of the first white man to push off alone into that awesome scramble of glaciers and peaks sprawling across the southern sky. Few men I know would have or could have tackled this perilous ride. It is a different proposition for a man to start into an unknown country, headed for a distant objective, in a boat or with a pack on his back from what it is for one man to drive a bunch of loose horses into unknown country. Feed and water must be found for the horses. Windfalls and swamps can block the way. Rivers must be swum, and a man must sleep with his eyes and ears open, be able to outride the loose horses, hold them together and keep them headed in the right direction.
I rode back to camp through the jack pine, and the same lonely spooky feeling, that, sinister, lifeless, jack pine spell, seemed to reach out and grip me as it did when I first looked out on this vast empire from the Algak Mountains. On a battered calendar each evening I crossed off a day. Tommy and I started this system the day after Pan left, calling it the 17th. Actually our timing was a week off.
On that day in June, after Pan waved good-by near the mouth of the box canyon, he pounded his pack train steadily south toward the distant glacial rim. It was two months before we saw him again and heard the story of his incredible ride. Then he told it in his casual, “nothin’ to it” manner, but as faithful as a diary in detail.
As he advanced, he told us later, he was surprised to see the Box Canyon widen. Clusters of strange, coneshaped, lacquer-red and lemon-yellow buttes rose on its borders, some reaching 1,000 feet toward granite peaks and blue-green glaciers. That first day Pan made a good twenty miles. Next day he had trouble driving the horses through the grass on the canyon floor. They stopped often to feed. Pan knotted the end of his lariat and drove the outfit to the end of the valley—to the base of granite walls and rockslides. In the evening he rode Piledriver 2,000 feet above the floor of the canyon.
The Grizzly Faced the Forty-four
He dismounted and looked north, finally satisfied that this was the route through the peaks. He sat down and rolled a smoke and watched dusk creep into a pale sky. Above him a rock broke loose. Piledriver plunged wildly off to the side. Pan swung about. On a flat rock, fifty paces above him, a great moth-eaten grizzly bear swayed from side to side, his beady eyes staring down unblinkingly. Piledriver crashed down the rockslide.
Pan knew grizzly bears. He froze where he sat. Below him Piledriver started a rockslide. The clatter of loose rocks rose to a deep rumbling roar. Pan rose slowly and reached carefully for his Smith and Wesson 44. The monstrous bear shuffled toward him, then suddenly rose up on its hind legs. He towered above Pan, mouth open, slime drooling out of the corners. Pan eased the gun muzzle up till it pointed to the bear’s open mouth.
“I was afraid to shoot,” Pan related. “He was too close. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started talking, quietly: T can shoot ya through the mouth and two times in your ornery heart—and I know you’ll keep cornin’.”
The huge animal swayed and peered intently at the motionless figure of the man. The words almost stuck in his throat, said Pan, but he got them out: “ ‘Jest one step closer, grizzly, and you’re a dead bear. Maybe you’ll kill me, too, but I don’t happen to be afraid of that.’ ”
He waited. The grizzly appeared to be thinking— then to have made up his mind. The great bulk of him dropped to all fours; he paused, sniffed into the breeze
and then shuffled heavily
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over the rocks at an angle away from Pan until he swung out of sight behind a wall of rock.
Pan looked at Tommy and me, grinned and sat down heavily on a rock. “Did I tell that grizzly I wasn’t afraid?” he said. “I sure am one hell of a liar.”
There is little doubt that Pan’s knowledge of a grizzly saved his life. If he had turned to run or shot in the air or run toward the bear in an attempt to bluff him, or if he had poured lead into the animal, the chances are that a one-sided wrestling match would have resulted. Pan knew a grizzly will often study a man with no intention of attacking. But a startled or surprised grizzly will charge nine times out of ten. That’s why packers often leave the bells on their horses when they travel through grizzly country. The clanging sound warns the bear of the approaching train.
The morning after his encounter with the grizzly Pan pushed the pack horses up through the steep rockslides toward the high gap. A lame Piledriver limped behind while Pan rode another horse. At day’s end he knew the pass was a false lead; all he saw was a jagged land of rock and snow, dropping off more than 1,000 feet into a rocky gorge.
Far in the distance the high rock world ended abruptly in a billowy range of snow mountains. Pan was in a critical position. There was no feed, water or wood. There was only one thing to do—turn about, and hope that the horses would be able to sense their way in the dark down the trail to the valley floor, thousands of feet below.
Night fell suddenly. Far below a great avalanche roared down into space. Out of the depths the booming crashes echoed between the peaks. Then empty, penetrating silence.
The tired horses trembled in their tracks. Pan turned about and yelled at the herd. “Hit the back trail, ya swamp guzzlers. Hit down the mountains, ya ornery bunch of bunch grassers. We’ve been up here in the stars and it ain’t for us.”
Cautiously, the black line of horses
picked its way down to safety on the grassy valley floor.
Next day Pan found he had traveled too far west. It was now clear that he would have to find a pass through the Itcha Mountains to the southeast. He tied grub to his saddle and struck up a rockslide. Late in the afternoon he found himself at the edge of a slanting glacier that reached above him toward an opening.
He led his horse the last hundred yards over the slope into the narrow gap. What he saw, Pan related, made him hold his breath as the country came into view; then he let out a yell— “We’ve cracked the wall. This is the trail to the outside.” Down below him, Pan said, was Anahim Lake.
I was stirring moose meat-and-rice mulligan in an iron pot on our campfire about mid-August when a series of yells broke through the spruce jungle across the creek. I jumped up and splashed waist deep across the creek into the spruce. Suddenly a pack-laden cayuse came into view and behind him another and then others. Panhandle was back after a month and a half. His feat of manoeuvring the ungainly tonnage of grub and haying machinery with our inadequate string of horses, through unmapped mountain ranges, had been a stupendous one.
Those Girls in Bella Coola
Piledriver was in the lead. He stumbled every few steps with his 300-pound load of rake teeth, mower knives, parts of a hay rake. Gaine old Buck followed, carrying a whole rake frame and wheels, and, behind him, Nigger, Peter McCormick’s much written-about pack horse who climbed Mystery Glacier on the famous first ascent of Mount Waddington, the highest mountain in British Columbia.
I drew in my breath as the big surefooted black reached my side. Two cast iron, heavy-duty mower wheels and parts of the frame—more than three hundred and fifty pounds—were lashed on his back. Then, almost hidden beneath a big rack of windows, was Old Scabby White.
More packs, more horses followed.
These horses were coming home— conquerors of the rocky trails, unsung heroes of the silent lonely lands, these
cayuses whose strong backs and hearts had made possible the opening of a new frontier.
Nimpo came into sight, toting the unbelievable bulk of a Massey-Harris oil - bath mower frame (weight 350 pounds). On Ins other side, to balance this terrific weight, was slung a hundred-pound anvil which hung down even with the bottom of his belly. And, grinning down at me from their saddles, were Pan and Alfred Bryant.
Pan fell asleep almost instantly after rice and mulligan. I pulled his boote off and let him lay. But, before Alfred crawled into his bunk, he said, “Boys, we’ve got a real good one on Pan this time. Tomorrow ask him how he likes the Bella Coola girls. Kid him about the Blackwater being a real sociable place to bring a wife to.”
Next morning at breakfast Alfred spoke up, “You know. Rich, this spot here is mighty beautiful, but there’s something lacking.”
I took it up quickly—“The soft touch of a woman.”
“Too many bones in these trout.” The Top Hand coughed. He tried to swing the conversation away from Alfred’s lead, but I sidetracked him quickly and said to Alfred, “Say Bronco, Tommy and I want to hear all about those Bella Coola girls. What kind of a figure did the Top Hand cut?”
“Boys,” Pan broke in, “we better cut the talk and get after those horses.” He pushed up from the table and strode to the bunkhouse.
“What’s eating Pan?” I asked Alfred.
Alfred looked knowingly at me: “Pan spent his time in Bella Coola taking the prettiest and smartest little girl in the village out riding. They call her Shorty. I think he’s fallen like a ton of bricks.”
Something had changed Pan all right. He seldom laughed. Only once did he pull off his “nothin’ to it” remark—when I asked how he raised money to buy the equipment.
“Why,” said Pan, “there was nothin’ to that. I just wired Stanley Blum in Wyoming that I was short of money and told him to make me an offer by return wire on my string of cow horses.” Then casually he added, “I had to put in time in Bella Coola for a week before Stanley cleared me for a thousand dollars.”
Then one evening I glanced up and saw a. flashy-looking, black-and-white pinto dancing across the meadow.
“That’s Dad,” said Tommy.
“I’ll be damned,” said Pan. “Seein’ a white man in this country jolts a man up.”
The teamster turned in his saddle and yelled at Pan. “I’ve packed in your mail—and there’s a nice sweetlooking little letter for ya from Bella Coola.”
Back at the bunkhouse Pan shook the pile of mail out of Andy’s gunny sack, scattered it hurriedly, snatched up one letter and without a word dashed out the door. Andy looked bewildered.
“He’s fog-heaved, and he’s brainfevered hisself,” he exclaimed. “Night life in the swamp bottoms will do it to a man as well as horse.”
“How’s haying going?” Tommy asked his father.
Andy looked sheepish. “Well, I’ll tell ya something, Tommy. I’m not supposed to be here, so don’t ever tell your mother you saw me. I busted my mower knife on a rock. Had to get a new batch of sections, so I saddled up and rode out to get some.”
“Rode out eighty miles to Blackwater for mower sections?” Tommy asked incredulously.
Andy looked apologetic. “Well, I
rode to Anahim for the knives and hoard that gold is going up to thirtysix dollars. I figured I’d look over that Box Canyon on the mountain, so I brought you boys’ mail along. That erik up there is filled with gold. I used my cap for a gold pan and shook out some sand along the crik. It’s placer gold sure as we’re livin’.”
Pan came through the doorway. He slapped Andy on the back, and yelled at me to get dinner on the table. I noticed immediately that his personality had reverted to old times with the reading of his letter.
After clear ing up our supper, Pan asked if anyone had paper and envelopes to write a business letter. Tommy looked admiringly at the Top Hand. “I wish I was good enough to write a real businessman’s letter,” he said.
Pan began writing, and I turned to talk to Andy. Suddenly, Pan spoke from his pad, “Say, Rich, how do ya spell forever? Is it one word or two words?”
I looked at him closely. “Two words,” I said.
The Top Hand wrote something, then looked back up at me. “Are you
plumb sure? You know how it is, Rich—when you’re writin’ a real business letter— well, ya just got to get the thing spelt right.”
I was staring hard at the Top Hand. “One word,” I said.
When Andy rode south into the jack pines the following day he carried in his pocket Pan’s “business letter.” Tommy followed him in September to help with the haying. Pan and I decided to inspect our summer’s work.
“Friend,” said Pan, “we’re gonna see just how much .grazin’ country and hay meadow we’re sittin’ on. Let’s
ride.” Starting the next day, we rode through great sweeps of meadow land split by a willow-fringed river like a writhing snake, then east for miles to a beautiful lush land of many-colored wild flowers, lost in a stretch of low bunch grass and peavined hills that dipped into blue lakes.
“Wow! What a range!” exclaimed Pan. We headed back over a high rocky mountain to a volcanic ridge. A red-and-grey lava bed reached south to low rolling country. Herds of deer sprang out of the tall grass, followed by grouse and prairie chicken.
Back at the ranch we changed horses and struck southeast toward the Itcha mountains. As we rode along we noticed a large type of bunch grass. Some bunches were a foot in diameter, with fine silky heads standing two feet above the ground.
IIow to Hold an Empire?
“Real old-time Montana bunch grass,” Pan chuckled. “Best feed in the world.”
We rode for two days through the prairie and tree-dotted grasslands before we gave up looking for the other end of it, and turned our horses back. It seemed incongruous, with the shortage of range and pasture in Canada and the western states, that such a vast world of grass was still waiting here under the Itchas, untouched and unknown.
Back at the bunkhouse, reclining on his peeled-pole, double-decker bunk, the Top Hand rolled a smoke. “I guess ya realize that we’ve rode through a whole new frontier,” he said. “We’ve covered thousands of acres of country and we still don’t know how much farther she runs.”
I had done a lot of thinking as mile after mile of the new cattle frontier opened out before us. I had shuffled and reshuffled plans in my head, trying to figure out what we should do about our fabulous discovery. I knew that it would take many years for Pan and I to tie up and stock all the country we could handle, and it was only reasonable that news of our discovery would send cattlemen and homesteaders into the area.
The ranching country was farther from railroad and town than any ranching district in the United States and, as far as I knew, in Canada; and yet I had ugly visions of other cattle countries I had seen, overgrazed with soil erosion cutting away the top soil, the range fenced in, truck roads, and then a maze of red-tape herd laws and government supervision.
Boss for a New Ranch
Why wasn’t it possible to keep this wild stretch of land in one huge block as a modern cattle empire similar in magnitude to those that once existed on this continent—a land that, except for a few lonely cattle stations and a scattering of drift fences, would remain in its wild natural state through the years?
For days I had tried to figure out how Pan and I could hold this great chunk of land and had finally come to the conclusion that there was only one way to do this: we would have to form a cattle company, then purchase and lease strategical areas across the entire country. I knew that the whole business of forming a cattle company, with all the red tape and strings attached to it, would require management and know-how. But neither Pan nor I had the time to do this on our own.
Then a picture suddenly flashed across my mind. I saw George Pen-
noyer standing iron-jawed before us— a man who had not only been general manager and part owner of one of the biggest cattle companies in the West, but who was also recognized as an authority on range management. Quickly I said to Pan. “Say, boy, do you remember what George Pennoyer said to us before we left Wyoming?”
The Top Hand sat erect. “You’ve got it, boy,” he snapped. “George said, ‘If the layout up there looks big—if it’s really big and you think it’s a cattle company proposition—I’ll come up there and throw in with you fellows, and we’ll start a real frontier cattle company!’ ”
But a few days after this decision Pan doubled up with an attack of appendicitis and the Itcha Mountains suddenly took on a sinister and formidable appearance. I knew that if Pan’s appendix broke there wasn’t a chance of getting him out. The next morning Pan’s right leg cramped. He was violently ill, his face grey and his eyes sunken. I was panicky.
Soft Whinny from Scabby White
I was looking down at the Top Hand when he said: “Friend, I’ve got to tell you somethin’ just in case. There’s a little girl down in Bella Coola—her name’s Adelia, but they call her Shorty. Well, I’m afraid I’ve plumb slipped, boy.” He paused a moment.
“Light me up a smoke,” he said. I rolled him a smoke, lit it, and stuck it between his pale lips. He coughed. “Ow—that sure didn’t tickle none, friend—it’s like a knife going into my belly.”
“You’re crazy to smoke,” I told him. He perversely took another drag. Then he spoke again.
“Just in case I bog down here, tell Shorty that I plumb loved her more than anything in the world.”
For a moment Pan’s dulled eyes opened wide. He cleared his throat. I could see he was struggling for strength and for words. A long sigh heaved up from the Top Hand’s throat. I thought his breath had stopped.
I doused an old towel in the water bucket and slapped it over his naked side. His eyes opened and he spoke weakly, “Somethin’s just come to me. There’s a can of olive oil ditched away some place. Olive oil—appendix.”
The Top Hand sank back. I dashed for our miscellaneous pack boxes and junk. A large tin of olive oil came up miraculously.
I slashed two holes in the top with a hunting knife, knelt by Pan’s bed and poured it into his mouth. Pan gurgled, gulped more oil and in a few minutes fell asleep.
1 heard horses’ hoofs pounding in the yard. As 1 stood up from Pali’s bed, Scabby White’s bony head peered anxiously through the open door. Behind him Old Joe whinnied. I could see his long ears bent forward on his head. Scabby whinnied softly, then turned about, and he and Joe walked on down to the water hole.
Hours later Pan opened his eyes again. They were smiling with renewed life. “Oil,” he said, “more oil.” His voice came out strong. “That’s the stuff. The pain’s nearly gone, friend.”
I handed Pan the can. He swallowed several times and handed it back to me. “I dreamt those two colts of mine were here standin’ by the bed,” said Pan. “They were talkin’ away at me jus' like white men. Old Scabby was atellin’ me that the knife stickin’ me in the guts was gonna quit—and a funny thing—Old Joe, he kept sayin’ to me, ‘There’s nothin’ to it boy— nothin’ to it at all!’”
I stared unbelievingly at Pan. “Scabby and Joe were here alright,” I said. Pan grinned knowingly.
“Ya know, sometimes a man gets the damnedest dreams.”
It was deep into September when Tommy rode back into the Blackwater. While Pan was recuperating we had pow-wowed our immediate plan of action. Before the winter cracked down the Top Hand was to strike for Vancouver to have his appendix out. I was to head for Wyoming, pick up George Pennoyer and carry on to New York to finance our cattle company.
To start with, I was to ride out to Anahim immediately and send off by pony express our long detailed letter to George Pennoyer and one to the B. C. Department of Lands, mapping out the approximate area we were interested in—some four million acres of meadow and range land. Among other important letters I carried in my saddle pockets was one from Pan to Adelia.
That day in 1935, as I rode south through the wild heights of the towering Itchas, I naturally couldn’t foresee the future and know that our dreams
would come true; that Pan would marry Adelia; that the grand old cattleman, Pennoyer, would become general-manager of our proposed Frontier Cattle Company; that great trail herds, chuck wagons, horse remudas and eowpunchers would soon be strung out across the land, moving from distant railhead and town and ranch across the vast lonely lands in northern British Columbia into the last cattle frontier.
But one thing I did know-in my heart I was certain sure that I had found my country.