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Heroes in the Desert, 1916 (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 08, 2011

One of my old columns for the Salt Lake Tribune:

Salt Wells Wildlife Habitat Area 40 miles west of Brigham City, Utah, is a harshly beautiful region. The barrenness of salt flats and sagebrush is relieved by brackish springs that provide nesting grounds for waterfowl. Bird watchers and solitude seekers make up most of the area’s human visitors today. Unbelievably, several families attempted to wrest a living from these inhospitably empty miles early in the 20th century.

On June 13, 1916, Earl Holt drove his team to the Salt Wells springs. His wagon was loaded with barrels which he filled with water for use on his dry ranch, while his four-year-old son Mervin sat in the wagon holding the reins.

Something frightened his horses. As they started to run, Holt leaped for the horse nearest him but succeeded only in pulling off the animal’s bridle. Holt was knocked to the ground, the heavy wagon rolling over his left leg and breaking it below the knee. Mervin fell back into the wagon box between the barrels and shrieked for help. Holt, believing he was the only human within miles and desperate for the safety of his son, ignored his broken leg and began crawling after the runaway wagon.

Unknown to Holt, however, Warren and Barbara Hickman and one of their sons were working on the edge of their own ranch nearby. They saw the dust raised by the horses and heard the screams of a terrified Mervin. Hickman realized that the contour of the land would soon cause the horses to turn toward him. He directed his son to run around a hill where the horses must pass, and told him to do his best to rescue the child. Hickman, crippled by the arthritis that would contribute to his death four years later, could not chase the wagon himself. He would catch one of his horses and ride after as soon as he could. Mrs. Hickman ran back along the way the horses had come to look for the missing teamster.

The record does not clearly identify which of Hickman’s sons ran to head off the horses. He is described as “a little boy” not much older than Mervin. That description fits eight-year-old Voy Hickman, whose next older brother was thirteen-year-old Thomas. His name was unreported; his heroism was not.

Voy ran to the place indicated by his father. By the time the wagon reached the spot, the horses had begun to slow. Voy seized the back of the wagon and pulled himself aboard. He found Mervin completely drenched by water that had splashed out of the barrels during the rough ride. Voy took Mervin by the hand and together they jumped from the wagon. Unhurt by their fall, the two small boys, still hand in hand, walked back through the sagebrush.

Hickman caught his horse and pursued the wagon, eventually catching up at the base of a low mountain range. He had no trouble taking control of the weary animals and bringing the entire outfit back.

Meanwhile Barbara Hickman had discovered Earl Holt crawling through the desert. She told him that her husband and son had gone after the team, but he was too distraught to rest until he saw Mervin, unhurt, walking with Voy in the distance. Then he finally rested and allowed Mrs. Hickman to bathe his scraped arms and make him as comfortable as possible as they waited for Hickman’s return.

Hickman tied up Holt’s horses and drove his automobile to pick up Holt and the others. On their way to Tremonton, the party met Mrs. Holt returning from a supply run to town. They drove together to Tremonton’s Whitlock-Merrill hospital where Holt’s broken leg was set.

The runaway is a long forgotten incident in a region that retains little trace of the Holts or the Hickmans. But Utah’s history is made up of countless such personal struggles, and the stories of neighbor helping neighbor.



2 Comments »

  1. I wonder what spooked the horse? Cool story.

    Comment by Cliff — August 8, 2011 @ 10:15 am

  2. During times of great stress, our bodies are able to do incredible things. I can’t imagine being in pain and crawling on a broken leg to go after a child and runaway horse. I’m glad that things turned out well for them. I’m sure that there are many similar stories with a different outcome.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — August 8, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

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