Long before the Cariboo Road was used by wagons, it was a narrow trail. To get supplies from Yale to Barkerville was a daunting task that would take a month’s journey to complete with pack animals such as mules and horses. In 1862, someone had the idea that camels would make the job easier. This fictional story features real Cariboo packers Jean Caux, known as Cataline and his long time assistant, Ah Gun.
Ah Gun had never seen an animal like it and there were two of them. Two double humped camels standing in the way, staring down his mules.
Now that they weren’t moving he could feel the hot sun. He could sense the mules discomfort too – the constant flicking of their tales as the flies buzzed around.
Gun took off his hat and wiped his brow. Couldn’t they follow orders? They were supposed to be behind him and his horse.
It was almost noon and they were a quarter way up a steep hill high above the Fraser Canyon.
Gun had let the mules and camels stop for a rest just twenty minutes ago, but now the path was too vertical to pause for breath. It was one of those steep grades that required you to lean forward and each step was a small victory over the previous one. The horse knew well enough never to look down and the mules always walked cautiously focussed at the ground in front of them.
There were six mules behind Ah Gun and his horse, each one of the mules were loaded down with boxes of supplies heading for Barkerville. Some of the boxes contained dynamite and mercury. They were each carrying about 350 pounds. Enough to blow a hole through the canyon. Two things that the gold miners were using in their quest to find gold at all costs.
Most of the time, the mules behaved themselves and although each one had its own personality, he knew which ones to separate and which ones liked to travel together. In this way, peace and productivity was maintained.
The presence of the camels changed this dynamic. The camels resented having to follow his horse, yet he couldn’t keep them travelling in the middle of the pack.
Gun had been doubtful, the night before in Yale when Cataline had brought around the two camels.
“Bactrian camels for a thousand dollars each,” Cataline said proudly, patting each of them on their flanks.
“Have they been trained?” Gun asked.
“Well trained. A bit mischevious or so I’ve been told but they can easily carry 500 pounds.”
Gun had been working with Cataline for almost twenty years and he trusted him entirely.
This time was different. The cook for the team was well in front riding the bell mare, the one that took the lead swimming across any rivers they encountered.
Behind Ah Gun were another eight mules with Ernesto, the other cargo packer but he was out of view.
Mules liked to travel in close proximity and the camels despised it; charging at the mules.
One of the larger camels and his shoe wobbled underneath him, causing him to slip. careened into the camel behind it causing its pack to slip.
A cacaphony of sound followed and Gun turned in his saddle to see what was going on.
It was as if the camels were having no more of this hill climbing and were marching forward, pushing two of the mules backward, perilously close to the edge.
Gun slipped down from his saddle and ran over to the camel with a piece of rope in his hand. Ordinarily, he could easily lasso a horse but a camel’s neck made it an impossible task.
He should have seen it coming but he didn’t. All of a sudden he felt a bone crunching kick to his thigh that caused him to almost double over.
Gun spat on the ground and grimaced in pain.
The camel turned and began slipping and sliding on the loose gravel.
Despite his injury, Gun hobbled down the outside of the path and grabbed onto the nose strap of one of the mules just as it was about to drop one foot over the side.
In all his years he’d never lost a single mule and he knew if he lost one then he’d have to make himself scarce; these animals were worth far more than a cargo packer like him.
Gun pulled hard on the rope that tethered the mule to the cargo. He had packed every animal himself, ensuring that the load was evenly balanced. There was no way that he was going to lose anything.
Gritting his teeth, Gun slipped a rope under the nose strap and pulled it tight.
How was he going to pull the mule away from the precipice? The animal looked frightened, he could see the whites of its eyes.
One of the things he had always been taught was to never tie a mule to another least one animal slipped down a cliff dragged the whole train with it.
The mule bleeted, his neck strained forward, its back leg scrambling in thin air still trying to find a foothold. All of a sudden one of the camels pushed itself in the way.
Ah Gun let out a stream of oaths and profanities in Chinese that must have sounded familiar to the camel or at least it understood. Without warning, the camel lowered itself on its front legs as if expecting him to jump on its back. Thinking quickly, Gun tied the rope around the camel’s middle and coaxed it around to rise up.
Nothing happened for a second or two and once again, the mule started slipping backward.
Once again, he yelled out in Chinese and this time the camel straightened up and edged up the hill, pulling the mule inch by inch.
He heard Ernesto yell up from the bottom, his voice echoing in the otherwise silent canyon.
Gun yelled back. Everything was okay.