Bitterroot Initiation, 2007 First Place Adult Division
By Amy McClellan
Bridger Ralston gave the command and Buck stepped smoothly out of the horse trailer. His dad handled the two young horses as they snorted at the sights and smells of the Bitterroot Mountains.
“Dad, do you think Big Jim and Sweet Sue will ever handle as well as Buck?” the thirteen year old asked, patting the stubby buckskin pony.
“Buck’s been heading up Scimitar trail since before you were born; he knows the way better than I do,” Cal said, pointing at the steep trail carved into the side of the mountains. “The other two will settle down after a few trips. ”
Bridger scanned the horizon, noticing the trail seemed to rise sharply and then vanish into thin air. He felt an unexplainable peace standing next to his father—two kindred souls on the brink of their first great adventure.
It would take two trips to haul the supplies up the four miles of trail to camp. Cal weighed each pack to get an even balance and placed them on the massive gelding. Big Jim accepted the load and was tied to Sweet Sue. Both horses sniffed the air through flared nostrils, but headed up the incline with only minor resistance. The gelding attempted to pass the lead mare several times, but finally settled into a smooth, rhythmic pace. Buck eased into his spot at the end of the line. His short legs made it difficult for him to keep up with the leaders. He’d trot, catch up, only to be left behind, again and again.
Bridger relaxed as he listened to the stream flowing in the distance, squirrels chirping intruder alerts and the occasional clink of horseshoes pegging rock.
Buck’s ears perked as they headed into the familiar camp. Cal set up the picket line, hitched up the horses, and began to rake pine needles with his boot revealing a stack of lodge-pole pine rails. He moved swiftly, resurrecting the wall tent. The campsite came to life in a matter of minutes.
After the horses were watered and rested, the group headed down the mountain to get the remaining gear. On the final descent of the trail, the horses stepped more cautiously, becoming wary of the trail ahead. Jim reared and broke the pigtail and tried to pass Sweet Sue. Cal managed to grab hold of the gelding’s lead rope but the horses continued to spook. Bridger finally noticed what all the fuss was about and pointed to a line of horses and mules coming up the trail. Each mule wore a bell and the jingle made Sue and Jim even more upset. Cal instructed his son to move off the trail into an open area.
Bridger counted six horses with riders, followed directly by nine mules, all strung together with a lead rope braided into the tail of the animal ahead of it.
“Hey Doc Reynolds,” Cal said smiling as the leader rode by.
“That your boy, Cal?” a white-haired gentleman on a paint asked, directing a glance at Bridger.
Cal nodded holding back his two horses.
“You gonna bring him down to into the Blue-hole after we get camp set?” the man asked; though he never stopped moving. Cal bid each rider a personalized welcome and then the spectacle was gone, with its festive music fading off as the group disappeared.
“What’s the Blue-hole dad?” Bridger asked.
“Well, son, the Blue-hole Trail is several miles long and drops nearly vertical in a series of switchbacks, opening into a valley where some of the biggest deer and elk in these mountains can be found. Doc Reynolds shot a Boone and Crockett last year.”
“Is he a real doctor?”
“He’s retired now, but he practiced medicine in Boise for many years.”
“He doesn’t seem like any of the doctors I’ve ever met except maybe Doctor Wells at the Veterinary Clinic. He wears a cowboy hat too.”
“Don’t be fooled. There’s more history and intelligence in that camp than you’d find in any classroom today.” With the parade out of sight, Cal eased the horses back down the remaining piece of trail. They watered the horses before packing the remaining supplies and heading up to camp.
After the final gear was unloaded and Cal heated some beans and franks on the open fire, Bridger couldn’t help but ask more about the Blue-hole.
“Have you been down the trail? Is it scary? Did anyone ever go off the edge? Are we going to go down it?” Bridger rambled until his dad broke in.
“Yes, yes, yes, and I don’t know.”
“You mean someone went off the trail? Did he die?”
“ I think he survived, but from the story I heard, he spent a good while wishing he had died”
“Are we going to go down the trail?”
“Well, hunting season doesn’t open until Tuesday so we could go down tomorrow. Buck can handle the hill just fine and the other horses have enough experience so that we can give it a try if you want. There’s only one or two narrow places that might give us some problems, but we can turn around if you get scared.”
Bridger bravely responded, “I’m not afraid.”
“Then we’ll head out in the morning,” Cal announced suggesting they get the horses settled in for the night and rest up for the day ahead.
A light rain tapped on the wall tent, encouraging Cal and Bridger to pull on the oilskin drovers before setting out for the Blue-hole. They packed lightly, but took enough gear in case the weather forced them to spend the night at what Cal had called the “Executive Camp.” He’d told Bridger more about the interesting party that consisted of a Doc Reynolds, a dentist, a lawyer, and several other unlikely hunting buddies. By reputation, it was one of the most prestigious and successful outfits in the Selway.
As Bridger nudged the pony in the flank, he was glad the rain fell straight down and his cowboy hat was enough to keep the drizzle off his face. Following his dad, he noticed the horses seemed to have regained some spirit and took sharp, hesitant steps along the rocky trail. Buck followed along in his ever-calm demeanor.
It didn’t take long to reach the point of decent into the Blue-hole. A foggy mist masked the valley below, but Bridger got an idea of what he was in for. He could see the first few winding turns that reminded him of a spiral staircase. A shrill bellow came from the trees startling the horses. Cal put his finger across his mouth, signaling his son to keep quiet.
“Elk bugles,” he whispered.
The competitive music grew stronger as the horses danced down the steep trail. The rain stopped and the mist started to clear so that the valley opened up, showing off its splendor. Cal pointed to the trail ahead and instructed his son to be careful on the next section, advising him to pull his feet out of the stirrups. He then reached back and untied Jim, announcing that it made no sense to have one missed step take everyone down. “Besides, Jim doesn’t have much choice but to follow anyway.”
When Bridger finally got into position to see the challenge ahead, it appeared that nearly half the trail had sloughed off. He could see Sue taking cautious steps and Jim following closely behind. Cal hollered at the gelding to stay back. Buck graced the path easily, but Bridger found himself unable to look down. He sucked in a huge breath of relief as the trail widened out again.
“You did well,” the older Ralston said, flashing a thumbs-up sign to the boy.
“That’s the worst part. The rest should be a piece of cake.”
“Why’d you tell me to take my feet out of the stirrups?”
“In that narrow section it’s more likely your horse might slip … and well… you’d be able to jump off and not head south with him, ” Cal said pointing down. “ If you fell you might not want to do it there.”
After the trail seemed less demanding, Bridger relaxed into the saddle. Buck seemed to be tiring and hung back a bit from the other two horses. Bridger heard a rustling in the brush above them and suddenly something plunged out of the trees and on to Big Jim’s back. Sue reared and Buck tried to turn back on the trail. Bridger reined the pony around until he saw the shadowy figure. In shock, he realized it was a mountain lion. Sue was rider-less and on the run. The mountain lion had hold of Jim by the withers. The massive gelding swung violently until the attacker was thrown from his back. Bridger watched in fear and excitement as the horse stomped and bit the big cat. In a few minutes, Jim stood panting over the motionless feline, but Cal Ralston was no where to be found. The frightened boy dismounted and walked along the trail’s edge. Peering down, he could see his dad lying on the steep hill below. He thought for a moment before making the decision to ride the trail further and reach his father from the bottom of the switchback.
As he tied Buck to a tree and made his approach up to his dad, he tried to shake the terror he was feeling. His dad always stressed the importance of not giving into panic, and he knew how true that was right now. He grabbed a blanket and the first aid kit. His first relief came from the warmth of his father’s body, then the second with a revelation of a pulse. He could see a badly contorted left leg and numerous cuts and gashes. He covered him with the blanket and placed a nearby rock under his feet to keep him from going into shock. He knew he had to get his dad to Doc Reynolds.
Bridger immediately went into action, hoping his plan would work. Fortunately, Jim had come down the hill and most of the pack was still intact. Bridger reached into the leather pouch and pulled out a coil of rope and a saw. He cut off a four-foot piece of downed lodge-pole pine and pushed it through both sleeves of his oilskin coat. Cutting a hole through a pocket on each side and lashing two longer poles through them, he formed a travois. He nodded his head, assured it to work. Climbing up the hill to his still unconscious father, he splinted the leg, and rolled him down until he was beside the makeshift gurney. He struggled to get his father into position, wrapped him in the blanket, and strapped him to the travois. Bridger paused for a brief moment to studywhat looked like a large papoose. He felt certain his contraption would get his father down the hill.
Bridger nervously forced Buck’s bridle onto Jim after adjusting it as best he could. He hopped onto the crossbuck on Jim’s back with Buck tethered behind. He rode on, even when he heard painful moans coming from the load. On arrival at the campsite, rescuers flocked to check out the odd sight.
Doc Reynolds took over as soon as he got enough of Bridger’s story to know Cal needed help. The doc started issuing orders, and soon members of the camp surrounded the older Ralston. Bridger stood back, uncertain of his father’s fate. He noticed that Sweet Sue had found her way back to the group. As he looked at the horses more closely, he saw the extent of the damages that Jim had received in the battle. It was then that he realized his hands were covered with blood. He wasn’t sure if it was Jim’s blood, his father’s, or both. He sat on the ground between the horses for some time with his head cradled in his scarlet hands somewhere between prayer and exhaustion.
He was startled when Doc Reynolds tapped him on the shoulder. “You saved your dad’s life, son. Can you tell us what happened?”
Bridger told the story about the mountain lion and how Big Jim had stomped it to death. “ He’s the real hero.”
“I don’t think that’s entirely true. It isn’t every young boy who can do what you just did for your pa. In my opinion, today’s kids have gone soft behind their computer games, cell phones and i-pods. It does my heart good to see your generation might have at least one hero.
Beaming slightly, Bridger got up and dusted off his pant legs. “Can I see my dad?”
“I gave him something to help him rest a bit and tomorrow we’ll see if he’s well enough to make the trip out. He’s pretty banged up and he’ll need more than what I can do here, but he’ll be okay. Let’s tend to old Jim’s wounds and then see if we can’t get you cleaned up a bit. Then we’ll go check on your pa. How does that sound?”
Bridger agreed, then ran his hands through his dusty hair to flatten it back down and put his misshapen cowboy hat back on.
Doc Reynolds pulled some veterinary supplies out of a plastic container before heading over to the horses. “How’d ya come up with the idea for the travois?”
“I don’t know … I guess it just came to me. We use one to haul wood out around Reynolds creek every summer but I didn’t really think about it. I just did what I had to do.”
“That’s pretty steep country for cuttin’ wood.”
“My grandfather has a cabin not too far from there. Dad and I stay there for a couple weeks every summer.”
“My family has history in that area too. They named Reynold’s Creek after my pa’s uncle. He was a fur trader and miner in the late 1800’s. From the stories I’ve been told, he and his partner had a lean year. When they were taking the furs to Darby to be sold they argued over shares and his partner pulled a gun and shot him in the back. Some folks from Darby saw what had happened and hung his partner on the spot. No one knew where they’d been camped but most of their horses broke free and that’s why the lesser creeks in the area have names like Filly Creek, Little Horse Creek, Stud Creek and such. Got some real good hunting in the area, too.”
“Maybe they had some gold stashed in their camp.”
“Could be… but now you remember ol’ Doc told you the story so he gets a share when you find it next summer less’n your thinkin’ of shootin’ me over it.”
Bridger extended a hand toward the doc. “Partners.”
“Partners,” Doc agreed. “Now partner, hand me that furazone salve and we’ll get this guy fixed right up.”
The gelding jumped a bit when the doc dressed the wound but calmed as Bridger held the halter taught and stroked his still damp neck.
“I think we can get by without stitching him. We’ll just need to keep the wounds clean. We’ll collect the lion carcass and have it tested for rabies—just in case. Pretty safe in this area but it won’t hurt to run some tests.”
“Hey Doc,” one of the other executives called out. “Cal’s waking up a bit and we can’t seem to convince him the boy is fine.”
“Put the supplies back in the kit and we’ll check on your pa.”
“Cal was conscious when Doc Reynolds came inside the tent. He tried to get up from the cot and was quickly subdued by the pain. “Have you seen my boy Doc?”
“Well yes and no Cal, I saw the boy when I rode up the trail yesterday but today all I’ve been able to find is this fine young man here, “ Doc said as Bridger came up to the cot.
Cal sat in silence for a moment seeming to have trouble focusing his eyes. “I think you’re right Doc.”
Everyone took a moment to rub the dust from their eyes before talking about the trip out.