- Historic Sites
An astonishing saga of endurance and high courage told by a man who lived through it
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
In the meantime I had to get back on my horse, for I was not making very good time walking. I almost rode past but noticed something sticking out of the snow, and sure enough I had hit it on the nail. I got off my horse, tied him to a post, and stumbled two or three times around the house, trying to find a way to get in, for snow had all but covered it. Finally, I saw a little upright building that looked like an outside toilet. I dug the snow from around the door. It was dark, snow was blowing, and it was about twenty below zero. I was about frozen myself, for icicles were hanging down and around my mouth. It was labor just to talk. I thought, My God, maybe they, too, are frozen.
I kicked the door hard several times, and at the same time this poor woman was trying to get the door open from the inside. She had stuffed the cracks with rags to help keep the cold out. Between her and me we finally got the door open. She asked me in. She did not know what had happened. She was calm, but cold and hungry, and was cradling her baby in her arms.
It was awful hard to tell her what was going on, keeping in mind she was all alone in this world. Her husband and daughter had already frozen to death, but she did not know. That was what I was there for. How do you tell her? I thought. We talked a few minutes. She sat down by a cold stove and said to me, “Where is my husband and daughter?” I began choking back tears. I told her what happened. You can imagine what was going through her mind. She paused a minute, looking to the floor, and then said, “Elbern, I don’t have hardly any food and nothing to burn in that stove, so I better go with you.” And when it began to sink in what I had said, she broke down and cried. I tried to console her the best I could. Finally I told her if she could hold out till morning, someone would come after her.
Then I headed back to the ranch where the children were. It was then after midnight. I saw my horse was getting awful tired. His shoulders began to tremble, so I got off and walked. I could walk on top of the snowdrifts, but he would break through. In places he would go belly deep and I would be standing on top. All the time I kept wondering what was going on at home, but I thought, Look what those poor kids and parents are going through at this point!
I got back to the ranch about 1:00 A.M. unsaddled my horse, and turned him loose among the hundred head of dead cattle, all standing up. Those cows, calves, and bulls looked like ghosts in the night. Well, I asked myself, is there anything more can happen? And there was.
You can imagine what it looked like inside the house. There was water, mud, and slush all over the floor, snow still three feet deep in the corners, and that many people in there made a foul air. Tin plates and forks and spoons on the floor in the muck. Some tried to feed themselves, but their frozen arms would not work and could not hang on to anything.
Now my job was to carry cow chips to the potbellied stove until morning. About 2:00 A.M., an hour after I got back to the ranch, the first doctor arrived with a caravan of six or seven cars, from Tribune, Kansas, twenty-one miles away. It took about five hours for that caravan to reach the little ranch house. On arriving about 2:00 A.M. the drivers found no shelter, for the little ranch house would hold no more. But they thought of that before leaving home, and they brought with them loads of quilts and blankets, expecting the old cars and the sky above to be their hotel rooms. A doctor from Holly came, bringing medicine and another nurse, making the shack more crowded than ever. By this time the children were all coming to, crying, screaming, needing to go to the bathroom, which was buried in snow out in the yard. The children still could not walk, so we had to carry them.
As soon as the doctors were there, they went right to work. They said, “Let’s get these kids to a hospital quick!” But “How?” was the question. When morning came, help started to pour in from everywhere.
A big cabin plane came roaring in from the west. I never saw such excitement. It circled a time or two, and we rushed out to signal where it could land. It was from Denver, and then a smaller plane came in from Lamar, sixty miles away. Just north of the ranch lay 160 flat acres, so both planes landed, bringing doctors and nurses. When the planes arrived, the doctors and parents were already preparing the children for the trip to the hospital. The children had to be carried about a quarter-mile through knee-deep snow, but there was lots of help. Two people would lock hands together, and two more would place a child in their arms, and so it went. They all got to the planes about the same time.
We loaded all the children on both planes, wrapping them in quilts, blankets, and heavy coats, for the smaller plane had an open cockpit. We bid them good-bye. The pilots had been keeping the engines warmed up all this time, for it was still fifteen below zero. Then one of the pilots warned everyone to get out of the way, for he was in a hurry to get moving. He wound the motor and headed into the wind, spraying snow like a storm, and the other followed, and in forty-five minutes they were at the hospital.