Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/January 1900/Old Rattler and the King Snake

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"I only know thee humble, bold,
Haughty, with miseries untold,
And the old curse that left thee cold,
And drove thee ever to the sun
On blistering rocks. . .
Thou whose fame
Searchest the grass with tongue of flame,
Making all creatures seem thy game,
When the whole woods before thee run,
Asked but—when all is said and done—
To lie, untrodden, in the sun!"—Bret Harte.

OLD RATTLER was a snake, of course, and he lived in the King's River Cañon, high up and down deep in the mountains of California.

He had a hole behind and below a large, flat granite rock, not far from the river, and he called it his home; for in it he slept all night and all winter, "but when the sun came back in the spring and took the frost out of the air and the rocks, then he crawled out to lie until he got warm. The stream was clear and swift in the cañon, the waterfalls sang in the side gulch of Roaring River, the wind rustled in the long needles of the yellow pines, and the birds called to their mates in the branches. But Old Rattler did not care for such things. He was just a snake, you know, and his neighbors did not think him a good snake at that, for he was surly and silent, and his big, three-cornered, "coffin-shaped" head, set on a slim, flat neck, was very ugly to see. But when he opened his mouth he was uglier still, for in his upper jaw he had two long fangs, and each one was filled with deadly poison. His vicious old head was covered with gray and wrinkled scales, and his black, beadlike eyes snapped when he opened his mouth to find out whether his fangs were both in working order.

Old Rattler was pretty stiff when he first came from his hole on the morning of this story. He had lain all night coiled up like a rope among the rocks, and his tail felt very cold. But the glad sun warmed the cockles of his heart, and in an hour or two he became limber, and this made him happy in his snaky fashion. But, being warm, he began to be hungry, for it had been a whole month since he had eaten anything. When the first new moon of August came, his skin loosened everywhere and slipped down over his eyes like a veil, so that he could see nothing about him, and could not hunt for frogs by the river nor for chipmunks among the trees. But with the new moon of September all this was over. The rusty brown old coat was changed for a new suit of gray and black, and the diamond-shaped checkers all over it were clean and shiny as a set of new clothes ought to be.

There was a little striped chipmunk running up and down the sugar-pine tree over his head, pursing his little mouth and throwing himself into pretty attitudes, as though he were the center of an admiring audience, and Old Rattler kept a steady eye on him. But he was in no hurry about it all. He must first get the kinks out of his neck, and the cold cramps from his tail. There was an old curse on his family, so the other beasts had heard, that kept him always cold, and his tail was the coldest part of all. So he shook it a little, just to show that it was growing limber, and the bone clappers on the end rustled with a sharp, angry noise. Fifteen rattles he had in all—fifteen and a button—and to have so many showed that he was no common member of his hated family. Then he shook his tail again, and more sharply. This was to show all the world that he, Old Rattler, was wide awake, and whoever stepped on him would better look out. Then all the big beasts and little beasts who heard the noise fled away just as fast as ever they could; and to run away was the best thing they could do, for when Old Rattler struck one of them with his fangs all was over with him. So there were many in the cañon, beasts and birds and snakes too, who hated Old Rattler, but only a few dared face him. And one of these was Glittershield,[1] whom men call the King of Snakes, and in a minute I shall tell you why.

And when Old Rattler was doing all that I have said, the King Snake lay low on a bed of pine needles, behind a bunch of fern, and watched with keen, sharp eye. The angry buzz of Rattler's tail, which scared the chipmunks and the bullfrogs and all the rest of the beast folk, was music for Glittershield. He was a snake too, and snakes understand some things better than any of the rest of us.

Glittershield was slim and wiry in his body, as long as Old Rattler himself, but not so large around. His coat was smooth and glossy, not rough and wrinkly like Old Rattler's, and his up-raised head was small and pretty—for a snake. He was the best dressed of all his kind, and he looked his finest as he faced Old Rattler. His head was shiny black, his throat and neck as white as milk, while all down his body to the end of his tail he was painted with rings, first white, then black, then crimson, and every ring was bright as if it had just been freshly polished that very day.

So the King Snake passed the sheltering fern and came right up to Old Rattler. Rattler opened his sleepy eyes, threw himself on guard with a snap and a buzz, and shook his bony clappers savagely. But the King of Snakes was not afraid. Every snake has a weak spot somewhere, and that is the place to strike him. If he hadn't a weak spot no one else could live about him, and then perhaps he would starve to death at last. If he had not some strong points, where no one could harm him, he couldn't live himself.

As the black crest rose. Old Rattler's tail grew cold, his head dropped, his mouth closed, he straightened out his coil, and staggered helplessly toward his hole.

This was the chance for Glittershield. With a dash so swift that all the rings on his body—red, white, and black—melted into one purple flash, he seized Old Rattler by his throat. He carried no weapons, to be sure. He had neither fangs nor venom. He won his victories by force and dash, not by mean advantage. He was quick and strong, and his little hooked teeth held like the claws of a hawk. Old Rattler closed his mouth because he couldn't help it, and the fangs he could not use were folded back against the roof of his jaw.

The King Snake leaped forward, wound his body in a "loveknot" around Old Rattler's neck, took a "half-hitch" with his tail about the stomach, while the rest of his body lay in a curve like the letter S between the two knots. Then all he had to do was to stiffen up his muscles, and Old Rattler's backbone was snapped off at the neck.

All that remained to Glittershield was to swallow his enemy. First he rubbed his lips all over the body, from the head to the tail, till it was slippery with slime. Then he opened his mouth very wide, with a huge snaky yawn, and face to face he began on Old Rattler. The ugly head was hard to manage, but, after much straining, he clasped his jaws around it, and the venom trickled down his throat like some fiery sauce. Slowly head and neck and body disappeared, and the tail wriggled despairingly, for the tail of the snake folk can not die till sundown, and when it went at last the fifteen rattles and the button were keeping up an angry buzz. And all night long the King of Snakes, twice as big as he ought to be, lay gorged and motionless upon Old Rattler's rock.

And in the morning the little chipmunk ran out on a limb above him, pursed up his lips, and made all kinds of faces, as much as to say, "I did all this, and the whole world was watching while I did it."

  1. Lampropeltis zonatus.