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I want to try to show, by this paper, how a hunter can have an interesting and exciting day without killing game, or even getting a shot,—that is, if he is in a rattlesnake country. I will tell the story and give the incidents of the day as nearly correct as it is possible to remember; and I have told it so often, and it was so amusing to my friends, that I have no fear but that I will give the facts just about as they occurred. But in doing this my reputation for “pluck” and skill as a hunter may suffer a little.
It was some years before the war, when game of every kind could be found near almost all of our military posts in New Mexico, and at this particular time I could, from the front door of my quarters at the old post up against the bluffs at Fort Union, see at one time nearly any and every day several hundred antelope on the plain between the post and Turkey Mountain, five or six miles to the east. There were no locomotives, cars, telegraph wires, nor poles then to frighten them away or make them wild.
I had been having very bad luck in hunting, while Captain Shoemaker (military store-keeper) had been killing an antelope, and sometimes two, nearly every time he went out, which was once or twice a week. Consequently, I determined to go beyond and on the east side of Turkey Mountain for a day’s hunt, and so started out one morning very early for a long day, hoping to find the game less wild than nearer the post.
Turkey Mountain runs north and south, or nearly so, and seems to have been pushed up, from below, by some gigantic force, five or six hundred feet (at the highest point) above the general level of the plain, on all sides of it. It is about twelve or fifteen miles long, and perhaps six miles across from base to base. It is very rocky and uneven, and is or was thickly wooded (generally with pine) from the northern end to within two or three miles of the southern end, where the trees disappear or never grew, and at which point there is a plainly marked crater of an extinct volcano.
My route from the post was direct to this crater, and of course to the extreme southern end of the mountain. There is a gradual ascent from the plain, from the east and west, to the rim of the crater, which is almost an exact circle, except at the southern side, where the lava seems to have broken away and poured out over the country to the banks of the Moro River, some miles away to the south.
This place was at that time a favorite spot for antelope, as the inside of the crater, after ages, perhaps had accumulated soil sufficient to make a smooth surface and produce a fine crop of sweet grass. It was from a quarter to half a mile, in a straight line, across the crater from rim to rim, and there was a gradual descent from the rim on all sides to the bottom, which was three or four hundred feet lower than the top, or rim. The topography of the country here, and in the vicinity, was favorable to the hunter, as the ridges of lava and the many boulders lying about furnished him good cover.
But, to my surprise there was not on this occasion an antelope to be seen in any direction, which at once led me to suppose that other hunters, or lurking parties of Indians, had been there before me on this particular morning, all of which had a tendency to make the hunt decidedly more interesting.
Finding no game here, I moved on to the east until I had well cleared the southern end of the mountain, and then turned almost directly north, keeping close to the edge of the timber on the left and west in order not to be forced out on the plain to the east, if there should be Indians hiding near the mountains in the timber. In this way, in case of trouble, I would have had a fighting chance of passing through the timber of Turkey Mountain to the west, and would have probably reached the post in safety.
For many miles I saw no antelope or any other living thing in the shape of man or beast. This was so remarkable for the section of country at that time, I felt certain some unusual thing had frightened the antelope away. And to make my mental eyes, as it were, grow larger, I could by looking away off to the east over the plain see very distinctly “Wagon Mound,” a place on the “old Santa Fé, trail,” which had become celebrated as the scene of many Indian fights with white traders bound for Santa Fé, before the Mexican War, and of course before Fort Union was ever thought of, and when “Kit Carson,” “Maxwell,” and “St. Vrain” were boys. So, calling to mind the written and unwritten history of this celebrated place, the stories told of men who heroically fought and died, had a tendency to give to every bush and stone an Indian.
However, I pulled myself together and rode boldly on to the north, and don’t know to this day the cause of such an entire absence of game from a country where usually there was so much.
In the afternoon, when well abreast of the northern end of Turkey Mountain, but some miles to the east of it, and about fifteen miles from the post, I saw quite a large herd of antelope quietly grazing, and as the cover and wind were all in my favor, my hopes were high for game.
I approached to within sixty yards of the herd, and was well covered by a little hill or ridge, and felt almost certain that in five minutes I would have an antelope to take back to the post.
I dismounted quickly, laid my rifle on the ground, unfastened the lariat from its place just behind the saddle, took the picket-pin in my hand (the other end of the lariat was around the horse’s neck), and then found a stone to drive it into the ground. After about the third stroke with the stone I felt a sharp sting on the back of my left hand, and at the same moment heard the rattle of a snake, and saw within a few inches of my hand the last half of a large and horrid-looking rattlesnake just about to disappear in a hole in the ground. His tail was in the air for a second, and his rattles seemed to wave as a flag, in triumph, as much as to say, “Ah, I have got you this time!” I had made it a rule to kill, either by shooting, or with stones or sticks, every rattlesnake I saw. But this time I thought the “boot was on the other leg.”
I immediately examined my hand, and sure enough there were the two punctures, just the distance apart to correspond to the fangs of a snake. I was of course frightened almost out of my wits, and my case looked very serious indeed. I was twelve or fifteen miles from the doctor at the post, and knew that a very rapid ride would cause the blood to circulate faster and send the poison through the veins all the quicker, and, on the other hand, if I rode slow, the loss of time would bring about the same results. All these things and many more passed through my mind in the few minutes occupied in pulling the picket pin out of the ground and putting the lariat back in its place. Shooting at the antelope I don’t think entered my head. I was in great doubt how best to proceed but finally acted on the rule laid down for old-fashioned whist-players, —i.e., “when in doubt play a trump.” I took a drink, and a big one.
I put the flask back in the saddle-bags, picked up my rifle, and mounted at once, and in a few moments was going at a gallop towards the post, and watching all the time for the swelling to begin in my snake bitten hand, and to my consternation I thought I could see it was getting larger. I also began to feel very warm, which was to my mind evidence that the poison was doing its deadly work. I then pulled up and took the walk, and finally halted long enough to take another drink, knowing if I could get thoroughly under the influence of the brandy there would be a chance for me. This time I took “a whopper.”
After this I rode quietly along for a short time, and tried to cool down, and made desperate effort to be a philosopher, and die, if I had to, like a man and a soldier. But I soon found I could not play that róle worth a cent. I did not want to be a philosopher and I did not want to die. I did not like the idea at all of being found on the prairie by my friends, swelled up like a dead toad, and black and ugly from the effect of the snake-bite.
It all of a sudden struck me that I was not feeling so very badly; in fact, I felt just at the minute very familiar and good. Thought I had felt that way on some other occasion. I knew I had never before been snake-bitten.
I succeeded, after a great effort, in not looking at my bitten hand for several minutes; but finally, feeling so much more cheerful and hopeful, I determined to peep at it again, trusting that my fears had made my case much more serious than it really was. With this feeling I slowly raised the hand (it seemed very heavy) before my face. I let it drop to my side with a feeling of horror, and realized that there was no hope! The hand appeared to be much swollen, and my whole body seemed to take on a feeling of weariness and lassitude that I thought preceded immediate death.
I laid my rifle on the saddle in front of me and then raised both hands together that I might see just how much the left one was swollen. To my amazement the right one was just as large as the left, and not only that, there seemed to be several pairs of hands; in fact, the air was full of them, and all badly snake-bitten. It suddenly occurred to me that I was very drunk, and at the same time realized that I could not be badly poisoned, or the brandy would not have taken effect so soon. Thinking the matter over for a moment, I remembered how hard it was to make a man drunk who had been bitten by a rattlesnake, while I had got very drunk without the slightest difficulty and in short order.
When it fully dawned on my benumbed brain that I was not bitten, I gave one wild, joyous whoop, and then broke out into a series of Indian yells. I leaned forward, or rather fell, on my horse’s neck and began to laugh, and roared, in a drunken way, until I was almost exhausted, as the reaction from, as I supposed, almost immediate death to life on the prairies, and horseback, was almost too much happiness for my shattered nerves. However, I had to brace up and look sharp, as a big revolver belted around my waist, a heavy rifle and a frisky horse, with the load of brandy I had aboard, were just a little more than I could manage with dignity and ease.
I straightened myself in the saddle and tried to ride like a soldier; but I had many scrambles to hold on to my rifle, keep both feet in the stirrups, and remain in my seat. I was, however, too much delighted at my reprieve from death not to rejoice and have a howling good time at the unexpected and delightful termination of the snake-bite.
I very soon got into an argument with myself. I seemed to be two fellows. The sober lieutenant was saying to the lieutenant who was drunk something to this effect: “You are a pretty fellow, you are; scared to death because pieces of the stone broke off when you drove the picket-pin in the ground, struck your hand, and made the blood come, but you ought to be court-martialed for cowardice,” and “I suppose you think you ought to have a brevet for this day’s work. Pretty soon you will fall off your horse and lose your hair.” “You go to hell—mind your business—damn Injins—whip forty—go way.” And a lot more of the same kind.
My whole mind was given to my horse and rifle, and to keep from falling off. I rode slowly and carefully, as I understood how important it was for me to remain mounted, for had there been no danger from Indians there were many chances of meeting small parties of prowling Mexicans, who very probably would have thought the possession of a good rifle and revolver and a few dollars sufficient inducement to commit a murder, especially if the man was drunk and helpless, and an “American.”
As the effect of the brandy began to die out a feeling of pathos crept over me. I wanted to weep, and felt religious, If I had had a friendly breast on which to lay my head, I think I could have sobbed with pleasure. But my horse would allow no fooling of that kind about his neck; consequently I was forced to “sit up,” and did not enjoy myself as much as one who had suffered so greatly ought to have done.
I was, however, rapidly becoming sober, and was growing very sleepy. But, as I was now in the wagon road leading from Fort Union to Maxwell’s ranch and the Arkansas River, and again on the west side of Turkey Mountain, I felt as if I was getting “out of the woods,” as a few miles farther on I would reach a point from which I could see the post, although eight miles away.
Feeling more secure in the saddle, I increased the gait a little, and soon reached the top of the ridge from which I could see the post (the old one); but, strange to say, I could not see an antelope at which there was any chance of getting a shot, even had I been in a shooting condition.
A few miles farther brought me close to some ponds, within five or six miles of the post, and I discovered there was a small flock of wild geese on one of them. I thought perhaps I was near enough to my normal condition to get the better of a goose, so rode off to the right (west) of the road, dismounted (with some difficulty), and made my horse fast to some volcanic rocks; but I had not gone far towards the geese before I discovered that he seemed very much excited, and was dashing about from side to side and straining hard at the lariat. I knew there was some unusual cause for this, so turned about and watched. In a few minutes three or four men on ponies, a half-mile away to the west, showed themselves for a second and then disappeared. The surface of the ground between me and these men was rough, and although there was no timber, a party, with care, could have approached me without attracting attention under ordinary circumstances; but fortunately I looked in their direction just in time, for when the nature of the ground compelled them to show themselves again they were much nearer, and on their third appearance were still nearer, and evidently trying to get between me and my horse.
I waited for no further developments, but returned to my impatient and frightened horse as rapidly as possible. I knew the men were either Mexicans or Indians, and from their manner of riding thought they were Indians; if so, I should be on horseback, as I could then fight or run away, whichever should prove to be best.
I lost no time in unfastening my horse and putting up the lariat and making an attempt to mount. For some minutes it was only an attempt, for just as soon as I raised my foot to put it in the stirrup he would give a plunge and try to be off. I, however, gathered the reins up short and tight in the left hand, and at the same time grasped a portion of the mane with the same hand, threw my right hand (which held the rifle) and arm well over the saddle, quickly placed my left foot in the stirrup, and made a quick spring and threw my right leg over the cantle, but failed to take an upright position, as the horse gave a bound forward at the same time I made the spring to mount, which left me hanging on his side like a monkey who was trying to dodge the whip of the “ring-master” on the other side. With me hanging in this ungraceful position my horse went thundering across the plain to the east, in the direction of the road, as if Old Nick was after him, and it was a run of nearly a quarter of a mile before I got into the saddle. If I had been in a circus rig and had performed such a feat of riding on my horse’s side, I would have “brought down the house.”
As soon as I got well into the saddle I regained control of the horse and brought him down to a walk, and almost immediately was in the road leading to the post. Looking back, I saw the men occupying the position I had just left.
I felt entirely exhausted, broken down, and defeated at every turn, and had only strength to relieve my feelings by sighing out the expressive words, “Well, I’ll be damned!” I rode slowly and sadly towards the post, which was only a mile or two away.
I had had what one might call “a full day.” I had ridden over thirty miles, been bitten, and I supposed, by a rattlesnake, got drunk and sober, was at the point of death and had recovered, and all this within twelve hours of the same day.
I rode quietly to my quarters, dismounted, sent my horse to the stable, and went to bed, feeling thankful that I had a back and a comfortable place to put it.
W. B. Lane, Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel U.S.A.
OLD POINT VIRGINIA