I don’t know about you, but I love to hear stories of a brave western hero, whether they ended good or bad. Just the other day, I was talking to my grandpa and he was telling me about his family and some of the stories that he remembered from his youth. To me, it is very important to remember these stories and pass them on to the next generation, so they are not lost in the past forever.
The vast majority of people who live in the west, have families who migrated to the US from Europe or some other country. I am no different, my dad’s side of the family hasn’t been in the US more than 2 or 3 generations.
My mother’s side of the family is a different story, however. I found out from my grampa that I have a direct ancestor that actually signed the declaration of Independence! I didn’t know that, but I would classify him as one of the greatest heroes, although maybe not a Western Hero. His name was Abraham Clark and he became one of the first members of the United States House of Representatives.
Another of my ancestors was George Wilmauth Clark, a direct descendant of Abraham Clark. George W. Clark fought in the civil war at the age of 15 and then became a cavalry bugler in Montana under one of the officers who would have met up with General Custer for the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but as you may know, Custer didn’t wait. General Custer was a man who wanted to be a western hero and in the end, it brought him to his demise.
I learned much about my family that I didn’t know. My grandpa told me a story about a true western hero and my grandpa’s parents before he was born. It took place in eastern Montana on the homestead that George Wilmauth Clark homesteaded in 1916 at the end of his cavalry career. The story of this hero is one of bravery and peril and I believe it is worth the telling, so here it is.
The story of this western hero is one of bravery and peril and I believe it is worth the telling, so here it is.
My great grandmother’s name was Silver Young and she was a woman that many men took a second look at. She must have been very pretty because she was chased by several different men when she came of marrying age. She ended up marrying a man by the name of George Mellinger and they went to live on the Clark homestead, which would have belonged to her grandfather.
George Mellinger was a farmer and it suited him to work the 320 acres of land out in the middle of the rather desolate prairies. The homestead was about 30 miles to the north of Miles City, Montana and very remote. There were only a few ranchers in the area at that time and Silver’s brother Leslie also had a homestead in the area.
Leslie Young didn’t live at his place much however because he was a mail carrier in Miles City and didn’t enjoy farming as much as the next guy. On occasion, Leslie had to ride out to his property and check on things, so one day in the fall of 1918 he saddled up his horse and rode the twenty-two miles to the town of Lambert, Montana. The next day, he was riding leisurely along toward home and he passed his sister and brother-in-laws place.
He noticed that no one was out in the field working. This was unusual because a farmers work was their life. He could also see that the house looked deserted, so Leslie rode over to see what was up.
He heard some moaning when he dismounted in front of the house. This quickened his movements perceptibly and he called out for Silver and George, but got no reply. Worried now he ran to the door and threw it open. What he saw made his heart jump into his throat!
George and Silver were both lying on their bed, very feverish and clearly having great trouble breathing. Their baby, Chad, was less than a year old and accept for his chest sucking in and out as he tried to get a breath, he made no movement or noise as he lay between his parents. They all had influenza!
Their baby, Chad, was less than a year old and accept for his chest sucking in and out as he tried to get a breath, he made no movement or noise as he lay between his parents.
Panic is not a recognized trait for a western hero, but it struck Leslie hard as he realized that this whole family was probably going to die. They were so young and strong, but the flu epidemic of 1918 was a disaster like the world had never seen before, killing over 50 MILLION people world wide and affecting 25% of the American population. The flu was indiscriminate and it took the young and the strong as quickly as it took the children and the elderly. It was a horrible way to die as your lungs filled up with fluid and you suffocated.
In Indian camps around the west, some people were taking cockle burrs, tying a string around it and shoving it down the Indian children’s throats, then pulling it back up to clear it of fluid and keep them alive. Many died within a day or two of the first symptoms.
This was known to Leslie as he stood in the doorway of that little homestead shack and looked upon a family that was in the throes of this very disease. “What was he going to do?”
He knew that without professional help, they would all be dead within a day or two. He had to act fast! Looking the little family over closer, he decided there was only one thing he could do, and that was to get them to the hospital in Miles City.
Leslie stepped back on his horse, leaving the little family, writhing and sick on the bed. With a prayer on his lips, he took off for the nearest ranch that had a wagon! He ran his horse down the road at a punishing gate, dipping suddenly down into a gully or ravine and then up the other side until he reached the nearest neighbor’s ranch house some miles away.
When they heard the tale he had to tell, they helped him hitch up their wagon and sent him on his way back to the little house that was soon to be filled with death! Leslie knew that when he reached the Clark homestead, he still had to traverse over 30 miles of prairie to get back to Miles City and the doctor. Because of this, he could not push the horses too hard or they would not have the steam to cover the entire distance without stopping.
In todays world of paved highways and air conditioned vehicles, 30 miles is nothing. We do that in less than 30 minutes out west where there isn’t any traffic. Back in that time in Lambert, Montana however, travelling 30 miles with a wagon was a big undertaking which usually took about 12 hours or more if the roads were not too rough. Horses can only travel at a trot, pulling a wagon for about 10 to 15 miles and then they would have to be changed out with fresh horses, not to mention that you would about jostle your sick passengers to death if you went at that pace. So Leslie knew that he would have to go slow and it was going to take him a long time.
When Leslie got back to the house, the family was still alive, but in terrible condition, and had to be mostly carried to the wagon and laid in the back on a pile of blankets. After making his sick passengers as comfortable as he could, Leslie started the slow trek back to Miles City. For hours on end, the Mellinger couple and their small baby bounced and jostled down the bumpy road toward possible help.
With this influenza strain, Leslie wasn’t sure whether the doctor could help these poor people or not. The whole world was in the throes of this epidemic and so many had died that about 1 in every 4 families in the US had had a family member die. With those kinds of statistics, there was certainly no guarantee that the doctor would be able to keep this young family alive. There was also the very real chance that they would die on the long trip to town.
Leslie kept praying all through the long night that God would have mercy on him and the Mellinger family. Each mile seemed to stretch into 10. The horses started to get tired toward midnight and began to go slower and slower as they went on. Leslie kept them going as best he could without either tiring them out or bouncing his passengers too much. As is often the case in such situations, he certainly didn’t feel like a western hero, or a hero of any kind. All he could think about was what the bumping along of the wagon was doing to his dying cargo.
The moans of agony and labored breathing of Silver, George and the baby became unbearable to hear. The sound spoke of impending death, slow and agonizing, but then at about 4 o’clock in the morning, the lights of Miles City came into view in the darkness ahead. There was no one else on the road at this time of night, and even though the sight of the lights brought hope back into Leslie’s heart, the lights looked as though they were a world away.
He tried to push the horses into a trot for a while, but that only brought more of the horrible noises from his passengers. The half gurgling crying of the baby was more than Leslie could stand and he brought the tired horses back down to a walk.
Several times in the next 2 hours, Leslie found his chin falling down to his chest in sleep. Even in this stressful, life or death situation the trip had taken its toll and he was having to shake himself awake every 15 minutes now. The lights of town had appeared and reappeared several times, but now they were steady and he could tell, in the growing light of dawn, that they were approaching the outskirts of town.
“Thank you God!”, Leslie said out loud as the wagon slowly passed the sign announcing that they were entering the city limits. He was almost there.
He pulled up in front of the hospital and two orderlies, seeing the wagon coming, ran out to help move the sick into the small hospital building. The nightmarish trek was over! The doctor did what he could for the the suffering family and after seeing them safely under the doctor’s care, Leslie himself walked over to the little hotel where he stayed when delivering the mail in the area and crashed on the bed with his clothes still on.
If the true western hero, Leslie Young had not stopped by it would have been the end. One more day in that cabin and they would have been beyond hope.
Leslie had been awake for over 24 hours, hitched and drove the team for about 40 miles, not including the miles that he rode that morning on his horse. He didn’t know it yet, but he had just saved the lives of Silver, George and Chad Mellinger! All the members of the family lived through the terrible ordeal and the couple went on to have 9 more children, 6 girls and 3 more boys. If it hadn’t been for the brave actions of Leslie Young, that whole family line would have been wiped out. If the true western hero, Leslie Young had not stopped by it would have been the end. One more day in that cabin and they would have been beyond hope.
Leslie is a western hero in my mind, not only because he saved the lives of Silver, George and Chad, but because in doing so he saved MY life. Although he died before my time, I want to say, “Thank you, Leslie, you won’t now be forgotten.”
Chad Mellinger is 96 years old and still going strong at the time of this writing and lives on a farm in Fairfield, MT!