Chapter 36 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

Charming the Crotalus.

I was destined to witness still further proofs of the wonderful capabilities of my new acquaintance.

I felt the natural joy of one whose life has been, saved from destruction—singularly, almost miraculously saved. Like one who has escaped from drowning, from the field of slaughter, from the very jaws of death. The reaction was delightful. I felt gratitude, too, for him who had saved me. I could have embraced my sable companion, black and fierce as he was, like a brother.

We sat side by side upon the log, and chatted gaily;—gaily as men may whose future is dark and unsettled. Alas! it was so with both of us. Mine had been dark for days past; and his—what was his, poor helot?

But even in the gloom of sadness the mind has its moments of joy. Nature has not allowed that grief may be continuous, and at intervals the spirit must soar above its sorrows. Such an interval was upon me then. Joy and gratitude were in my heart. I had grown fond of this slave,—this runaway slave,—and was for the moment happy in his companionship.

It was natural our conversation should be of snakes and snake-roots, and many a strange fact he imparted to me relating to reptile life. A herpetologist might have envied me the hour I spent upon that log in the company of Gabriel the Bambarra.

In the midst of our conversation my companion abruptly asked the question, whether I had killed the snake that had bitten me.

“No,” I replied. “It escaped.”

“’Scaped, mass’! whar did um go?”

“It took shelter in a hollow log,—the very one on which we are seated.”

The eyes of the negro sparkled with delight.

“Dam!” exclaimed he, starting to his feet; “mass’ say snake in dis yeer log? Dam!” he repeated, “if do varmint yeer in dis log, Gabr’l soon fetch ’im out.”

“What! you have no axe?”

“Dis nigga axe no want for dat.”

“How, then, can you get at the snake? Do you intend to set fire to the log?”

“Ho! fire no good. Dat log burn whole month. Fire no good: smoke white men see,—b’lieve ’im runaway,—den come de blood-dogs. Dis nigga daren’t make no fire.”

“How, then?”

“Wait a bit, mass’ Edwad, you see. Dis nigga fetch de rattlesnake right out ob ’im boots. Please, young mass’, keep still; don’t speak ’bove de breff: ole varmint, he hear ebbery word.”

The black now talked in whispers, as he glided stealthily around the log. I followed his directions, and remained perfectly “still,” watching every movement of my singular companion.

Some young reeds of the American bamboo (Arundo gigantea) were growing near. A number of these he cut down with his knife; and then, sharpening their lower ends, stuck them into the ground, near the end of the log. He arranged the reeds in such a manner that they stood side by side, like the strings of a harp, only closer together. He next chose a small sapling from the thicket, and trimmed it so that nothing remained but a straight wand with a forked end. With this in one hand, and a piece of split cane in the other, he placed himself flat along the log, in such a position that his face was directly over the entrance to the cavity. He was also close to the row of canes, so that with his outstretched hand he could conveniently reach them. His arrangements were now completed, and the “charm” commenced.

Laying aside the forked sapling ready to his hand, he took the piece of split reed, and drew it backward and forward across the row of upright canes. This produced a sound which was an exact imitation of the “skerr” of the rattlesnake; go like, that a person hearing it, without knowing what caused it, would undoubtedly have mistaken it for the latter; so like, that the black knew the reptile itself would be deceived by it! He did not, however, trust to this alone to allure his victim. Aided by an instrument which he had hastily constructed out of the lanceolate leaves of the cane, he at the same time imitated the scream and chatter of the red cardinal (Loxia cardinalis), just as when that bird is engaged in battle, either with a serpent, an opossum, or some other of its habitual enemies.

The sounds produced were exactly similar to those often heard in the depths of the American forest, when the dread crotalus plunders the nest of the Virginian nightingale.

The stratagem proved successful. In a few moments the lozenge-shaped head of the reptile appeared outside the cavity. Its forking tongue was protruded at short intervals, and its small dark eyes glittered with rage. Its rattle could be heard, announcing its determination to take part in the fray—which it supposed was going on outside.

It had glided out nearly the full length of its body, and seemed to have discovered the deception, for it was turning round to retreat. But the crotalus is one of the most sluggish of snakes; and, before it could get back within the log, the forked sapling descended upon its neck, and pinned it fast to the ground!

Its body now writhed over the grass in helpless contortions—a formidable creature to behold. It was a snake of the largest size for its species, being nearly eight feet in length, and as thick as the wrist of the Bambarra himself. Even he was astonished at its proportions; and assured me it was the largest of its kind he had ever encountered.

I expected to see the black put an end to its struggles at once by killing it; and I essayed to help him with my gun.

“No, mass’,” cried he, in a tone of entreaty, “for luv ob de Ormighty! don’t fire de gun. Mass’ forget dat dis poor nigga am runaway.”

I understood his meaning, and lowered the piece.

“B’side,” continued he, “I’se got somethin’ show mass’ yet—he like see curious thing—he like see de big snake trick?”

I replied in the affirmative.

“Well, den, please, mass’, hold dis stick. I for something go. Jes now berry curious plant I see—berry curious—berry scace dat plant. I seed it in de cane-brake. Catch ’old, mass’, while I go get um.”

I took hold of the sapling, and held it as desired, though not without some apprehension of the hideous reptile that curled and writhed at my feet. I had no need to fear, however. The fork was exactly across the small of the creature’s neck, and it could not raise its head to strike me. Large as it was, there was no danger from anything but its fangs; for the crotalus, unlike serpents of the genus constrictor, possesses but a very feeble power of compression.

Gabriel had gone off among the bushes, and in a few minutes I saw him returning. He carried in his hand a plant which, as before, he had pulled up by the roots. Like the former, it was a herbaceous plant, but of a very different appearance. The leaves of this one were heart-shaped and acuminate, its stem sinuous, and its flowers of a dark purple colour.

As the black approached, I saw that he was chewing some parts both of the leaves and root. What did he mean to do?

I was not left long in suspense. As soon as he had arrived upon the ground, he stooped down, and spat a quantity of the juice over the head of the snake. Then, taking the sapling out of my hand, he plucked it up and flung it away.

To my dismay, the snake was now set free; and I lost no time in springing backward, and mounting upon the log.

Not so my companion, who once more stooped down, caught hold of the hideous reptile, fearlessly raised it from the ground, and flung it around his neck as coolly as if it had been a piece of rope!

The snake made no effort to bite him. Neither did it seem desirous of escaping from his grasp. It appeared rather to be stupefied, and without the power of doing injury!

After playing with it for some moments, the Bambarra threw it back to the ground. Even there it made no effort to escape!

The charmer now turned to me, and said, in a tone of triumph, “Now, mass’ Edward, you shall hab rebenge. Look at dis!”

As he spoke he pressed his thumb against the fauces of the serpent, until its mouth stood wide open. I could plainly see its terrible fangs and poison glands. Then, holding its head close up to his lips, he injected the dark saliva into its throat, and once more flung it to the ground. Up to this time he had used no violence—nothing that would have killed a creature so retentive of life as a snake; and I still expected to see the reptile make its escape. Not so, however. It made no effort to move from the spot, but lay stretched out in loose irregular folds, without any perceptible motion beyond a slight quivering of the body. In less than two minutes after, this motion ceased and the snake had all the appearance of being dead!

“It am dead, mass’,” replied the black to my inquiring glance, “dead as Julium Caesar.”

“And what is this plant, Gabriel?”

“Ah, dat is a great yerb, mass’; dat is a scace plant—a berry scace plant. Eat some ob dat—no snake bite you, as you jes seed. Dat is de plant ob de snake-charmer.”

The botanical knowledge of my sable companion went no farther. In after years, however, I was enabled to classify his “charm,” which was no other than the Aristolochia serpentaria—a species closely allied to the “bejuco de guaco,” that alexipharmic rendered so celebrated by the pens of Mutis and Humboldt.

My companion now desired me to chew some of the roots; for though he had every confidence in the other remedy, he deemed it no harm to make assurance doubly sure. He extolled the virtues of the new-found plant, and told me he should have administered it instead of the seneca root, but he had despaired of finding it—as it was of much more rare occurrence in that part of the country.

I eagerly complied with his request, and swallowed some of the juice. Like the seneca root, it tasted hot and pungent, with something of the flavour of spirits of camphor. But the polygala is quite inodorous, while the guaco gives forth a strong aromatic smell, resembling valerian.

I had already experienced relief—this would have given it to me almost instantaneously. In a very short time time the swelling completely subsided; and had it not been for the binding around my wrist, I should have forgotten that I had been wounded.