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THE RATTLESNAKE HUNTER., Star, Issue 567, 15 March 1870
THE RATTLESNAKE HUNTER.
During a delightful excursion in the vicinity of the Green mountains, some years since, I had the good fortune to meet a singular character, known in many parts of Vermont as the Rattlesnake Hunter. It was a warm, clear day of sunshine, in the middle of June, I saw him for the first time while engaged in a mineralogical ramble among the hills. His head was bald, and his forehead was furrowed with the deep lines of care and age. His form was wasted and meagre ; but for the fiery vigour of his eye, he might have been supposed incapacitated by age and infirmities for even a slight exertion. Yet he hurried over the huge ledges of rock with a quick and almost youthful tread, and seemed earnestly searching among the crevices, and loose crags, and stunted bushes around him. All at once he started suddenly, drew himself back with a sort of shuddering recoil, and then smote fiercely with his staff upon the rock before him. Another and another blow, and he lifted the lifeless form of a large rattlesnake upon the end of his rod.
Ihe old man's eyes glistened, but his lip trembled as he looked steadfastly upon his yet writhing victim. " Another of the accursed race l " he muttered, between his clenched teeth, apparently unconscious of my presence.
I was now satisfied that the person before me was none other than the famous rattlesnake hunter. He was known throughout the neighbourhood as an outcast and a wanderer, obtaining a miserable subsistence from the casual charities of the people around him. His time was mostly spent among the rocks and rude hills, where his only object seemed to be the hunting out and destroying of the rattlesnake. I immediately determined to satisfy my curiosity, which had been strongly excited by the very remarkable appearance of the stranger ; and for this purpose I approached him. **' Are there many of these reptiles in this vicinity ? " I inquired, pointing to the crushed serpent.
• *' They are getting to be scarce," said the old man, lifting his slouched hat, and wiping his bald brow ; " I have known the time when you could hardly stir ten' rods from your own door in this part of the State, without hearing their low, quick rattle at your side, or seeing their niany-coloured bodies coiled up in your path. But as I said, they are getting scarce; the horrid race will be extinct in a few years, and, thank heaven, I have myself been a considerable cause of their extermination."
"You must, of course, know the nature of those creatures perfectly well," said I. "Do you believe in their power of fascination or charming ? "
The old man's countenance fell. There was a visible struggle of feeling within him ; his lip quivered, and he dashed his browu hand suddenly across his eyes as if to conceal a tear ; but, quickly recovering himself, he answered iv the low, deep voice of Cne that was about to reveal some horrible secret, "I believe in the rattlesnake's power of fascination as firmly as I believe in my own existence." .- .
: " Surely," said I, " you do not believe that they have power over human beings ? " " I do — I know it to be so ! " And the old man trembled as he spoke. " You are a stranger to me," he said, slowly, after scrutinizing, my features for a moment, " but if you will go with me to the foot of this rock, in the shade there," — and he pointed to a group of leaning oaks that hung over the declivity,—" I w.ll tell you a strange and sad story of my own experience." It may be supposed that I readily assented to this proposal. Bestowing one more blow upon the rattlesnake, as if to be certain of its death, the old man descended the rocks with a rapidity that would have endangered the neck of a less practised hunter. After reaching the place which he pointed out, the rattlesnake hunter commenced his stoiy, in a manner which confirmed what I had previously heard of his education and intellectual strength.
"* I was among the earliest settlers in this part of the country. I had just finished my education at Harvard, when I was induced by the flattering representations of some of the earliest pioneers into the wild lands beyond the Connecticut, to seek my fortune in the new settlement. My wife" — the old man's eye glistened for an instant, and then a tear crossed his brown cheek — " my wife accompanied me, young and delicate and beautiful as she was, to this wild and rude country. I never shall forgive myself for bringing her hither ! —never ! Young man," continued he, " you look like one who could pity. You shall see the image of the girl who followed me to the new country."
And he unbound as he spoke a ribbon from his neck, with a small miniature attached to it.
It was that of a beautiful female; but there was an almost childish expression in her countenance— a softness, a delicacy, and a sweetness of smile, which I have seldom seen in the features of those who have tasted even slightly the bitter waters of existence. The old man watched my countenance intently as I surveyed the image of his early love.
" She must have been very beautiful," I said, as I returned the picture.
" Beautiful 1 " be repeated ; " you may well say so. But this avails nothing. I have a fearful story to tell — would to heaven I had not attempted it ; but I will go on. My heart has been too often stretched on the rack of memory to suffer any new pang. " We had resided in the new country nearly a year. Our settlement had increased rapidly, and the comforts and delicacies of life were beginning to be felt after the weary privations and severe trials to which we had been subjected. The red men were few and feeble, and did not molest us. The beasts of the forest and mountain were ferocious, but we suffered little from them. The only immediate danger to which we were exposed resulted from the rattlesnakes which infested our neighbourhood. Three or four of our settlers were bitten by them, and died in terrible agonies. The Indians often told us frightful stories of this snake, and its powers of fascination; and although they were generally believed, yet, for myself, I confess I was rather amused than convinced by their marvellous legends. " In one of my hunting excursions abroad, on a fine morniDg — it was just at thi3 time of the year — I was accompanied by my wife. 'Twas a beautiful morning. The sunshine was warm, but the atmosphere was perfectly clear; and a fine breeze from the north-west shook the bright green leaves which clothed to profusion the wreathing branches over us. I had left my companion for a short time in the pursuit of game ; and in climbing a rugged ledge of rocks, interspersed with shrubs and dwarfish trees, I was startled by a quick, grating rattle. I looked forward. On the edge of a loosened rock lay a large rattlesnake, coiling himself as if for the deadly spring. He was within a few feet of me, and I paused for an instant to survey him. I know not why, but I stpod still, and looked at the deadly serpent with a strange feeling of curiosity. Suddenly he unwound his coil, as if relenting from his purpose of of hostility, and raising his head, he fixed his bright, fiery eye directly on ray own. A chilling and indescribable sensation, totally different from anything I had ever before experienced, followed this movement of the serpent; but I stood still, and gazed steadily and earnestly, for at that moment there was a visible change in the reptile. His form seemed to grow larger, and his colours brighter. His body moved with a slow, almost imperceptible motion towards me, and a low hum of music came from him, or at least it sounded in my ear a strange sweet melody, faint as that which melts from the throat of a humming-bird. Then the tints of his body deepened, and changed and glowed, like the changes of a beautiful kaleidoscope; green, purple, and gold, until I lost sight of the serpent entirely, and saw only a wild and curiously woven circle of strange colours, quivering around me, like an atmosphere of rainbows. I seemed in the centre of a great prism, a world of mysterious colours, and tints varied and darkened and lighted up again around me; and the low music went on without ceasing until my brain reeled, and fear, for the first time, came over me. The new sensation gained upon me, and I could feel the cold perspiration gushing from my brow. I had no certainty of danger in ray mind, no definite ideas of peril ; all was vague and clouded, like the unaccountable terrors of a dream, and yet my limb 3 shook, and I fancied I could feel the blood stiffening with Cold as it passed along my veins. I would have given worlds to have been able to tear myself from the spot — I even attempted to do so, but the body obeyed not the impulse of the mind, not a muscle stirred; and I stood stiil as if my feet had growu to the solid rock, with the infernal music of the tempter in my ear, and the baleful colourings of his enchantment before me.
" Suddenly a new sound came on my ear. It was a human voice, but it seemed strange
and awful. Again, again, but I stirred not ; and then a white f;rm plunged before me, and grasped my arm. The horrible spell was at ome broken. The strange colours passed from before my vi ion. The rattlesnake was coiling at my very feet, with glowing eyes and uplifted fangs ; and my wife was cling iug in terror upon me. The next instant the st-rpent threw himself upon us. My wife was the victim ! The fangs pierced deeply into her hands ; and her scream of agony, as she staggered backwards from me, told me the dreadful truth.
" Then it was that a feeling of madness came upon me ; aud when I saw the foul serpent stealing away from his work, reckless of danger, I sprang forward, and crushed him under my feet, griuding him upon the ragged rock. The groans of my wife now recalled me to her side, and to the dreadful reality of her situation. There was a dark livid spot on her hand ; and it deepened into blackness as I led her away. We were at a considerable distance from any dwelling ; and after wandering for a short time, the pain of her wound became insupportable to my wife, and she swooned away in my arms. Weak and exhausted as I was, I yet had strength enough left to carry her to the nearest rivulet, and bathe her brow iv the cool water. She partially recovered, aud sat down upon the bank, while I supported her head upon my bosom. Hour after hour passed away, and none came near us ; and there, alone in the great wilderness, I watched over her, and prayed with her, and she died ! "
The old man groaned audibly as he uttered these words, and as he closed his long bony bauds over his eyes, I could see the tears falling thickly through his gaunt fingers. After a momentary struggle with his feelings, he lifted his head ou.ee more, aud there was a fierce light in his eyes as he spoke : —
" But I have had my revenge. From that fatal moment I have felt myself fitted and set apart, by the terrible ordeal of affliction, to rid the place of my abode of its foulest curse. And I have well-nigh succeeded. The fascinating demons are already few and powerless."
Years have passed since my interview with tho rattlesnake hunter ; the place of his abode has changed — a beautiful village rises near the spot of conference, and the grass of the churchyard is green over the grave of the old hunter. But his story is fixed upon my mind, and Time, like enamel, only burns deeper the first impression. It comes up before me like a vividly remembered dream, whose features are too terrible for reality.
THE RATTLESNAKE HUNTER., Star, Issue 567, 15 March 1870
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