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An essay by Morley Roberts

Texas Animals

Title:     Texas Animals
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

The fauna of Texas is very varied, and a naturalist may find plenty there for his note-book, and much to reflect on, if he be a contemplative man. A hunter may satisfy himself, too, if he goes into the extreme west and north-west, but he must be quick about it, for I received a letter years ago from a friend of mine in the south part of the Panhandle of Texas, in which he told me that all the land was getting fenced in, even in those parts that I knew in 1884 as wide and open prairie, and when fences come the beasts go, deer and antelope retreat, and "panther" or cougar are hunted and shot by those who own sheep, cattle and horses. I am no naturalist, and no great hunter. At the risk of causing a smile of contempt I must confess that I can hold a shot-gun, a "double-pronged scatter-gun," or a rifle in my hands without shooting at anything I see. I have let antelope and deer pass me without even letting the gun off, and have spared squirrels and birds innumerable that most of my friends would have promptly slain; but I take great interest in animal life, and am fond of watching the denizens of prairie or forest.

When on my friend Jones's ranche in 1884 I sometimes went wild turkey hunting or potting; we used to choose a moonlight night and lie under the trees, where they roosted, and shoot them on the branches. It was mere butchery, and the sole excitement consisted in the doubt as to whether any of the big birds would come or not, and the chief interest to me was the conversation of my wild Texan friends, who were stranger than turkeys to me.

There were not many birds of prey around us, except the big slow-sailing turkey-buzzards, which are protected by law as useful scavengers. Nevertheless, I shot at one once, and having missed it I never tried again.

My great friends were the hares or jackrabbits, which are fast, but very easy to shoot, for if I saw one coming my way, loping or cantering along, I stood stock-still, and he would come past me without taking the least notice of my presence, probably imagining I was only a curious-shaped stump. Sometimes I found them in the dry arroyos or water-courses, and threw stones at them. They rarely ran away at once at full speed, but for the most part went a little distance and sat up to look at me, waiting for two or three stones, until they made up their minds that I was decidedly dangerous.

Another little animal was the cotton-tail rabbit, so called from the white patch of fur under the tail, which is as bright as cotton bursting from the pod, I killed one once more by impulse than anything else. It ran from under my feet when I had a knife in my hand. I threw it at the rabbit, and to my surprise knocked it over, for I am a very bad shot with that sort of missile.

The prairie dogs or marmots were in tens of thousands round us, and I used to amuse myself by shooting at one in particular with the rifle. His hole was a hundred yards from our camp, and he would come out and sit on his hill every now and again, and then go nibbling round at the grass. I shot at him a dozen times, and once cut the ground under his belly, but never killed him. They are extremely hard to get even if shot, for they manage to run into their burrows somehow, even if mortally wounded. The Texans believe they go back even when quite dead; but then they are rather credulous, for some of them believe that the rattlesnake lives on friendly terms with the inmates of the burrows. The rattlesnakes were very numerous, for one day I killed seven. The first one I saw threw me into a curious instinctive state of fury, and I smashed it into pieces, while I trembled like a horse who has nearly stepped on a venomous snake. Those Texans who do not believe in the friendship of snake and prairie dog say that it is possible to make the rattler come out of a hole he has taken refuge in by rolling small pieces of dirt and earth down it. For they assert that the prairie dogs earth up the mouth of the burrow when they know a snake is in it, and the reptile knows what is about to happen.

Of other snakes there were the moccasins, water snakes, and esteemed very deadly. It is said that when an Indian is bitten by one of these he lies down to die without making any effort to save his life, whereas if a rattlesnake has harmed him he usually cures himself. Besides these there were the omnipresent garter snakes, and the grey or silver coach-whip, both harmless. The bull snake is said to grow to an enormous size, and is a kind of North American python or boa. About five miles from our camp was an old hut, which was occupied by a sheep-herder whom I knew. One night he heard a noise, and looking out of his bunk saw by the dim light of the fire an enormous snake crawling out of a hole in the corner of the room. He jumped out of bed and ran outside, and found a stick. He killed it, and it measured nearly eleven feet. It is called bull snake because it is popularly supposed to bellow, but I never heard it make any noise of such description.

On these prairies there are occasionally to be found cougars, commonly called panthers or "painters," although erroneously. In British Columbia they are called mountain lions, and the same name is applied to them in California, unless they are called California lions. I am informed by a naturalist friend that they are the same species as the South American puma. I knew a man in Colorado City who was a great hunter of these animals, and he had half a dozen hunting dogs torn and scratched all over their bodies, with ears missing, and one with half a tongue, who had suffered from the teeth and claws of these cougars. He kept one in a cage which was much too small for it, and I was often tempted to poison it to put an end to its misery. This man had a regular menagerie at the back of his house, consisting of various birds, this cougar, and two bears.

These bears are not infrequently to be met with on the prairies, and while I was staying in a town one was brought in in a wagon. Bruin had been captured by four cowboys, who had lassoed and tied it. He weighed about 600 lbs., and was a black bear, for the cinnamon and grizzly do not, I believe, range in open level country.

Besides these harmful animals there were plenty of antelopes to be found, if one went to look for them, and the cowardly slinking coyote was often to be seen as one rode across the prairie; and often in walking I found tortoises with bright red eyes. These were small, about six inches long. In the creeks were plenty of mud turtles, which are fond of scrambling on to logs to sun themselves. If disturbed they drop into the water instantly, giving rise to a saying to express quickness, "like a mud turtle off a log."

I have said nothing of bison. Perhaps there are none now, but in 1884 there were supposed to be still a few on the Llano Estacado or Stakes Plain. I knew one man who used to go hunting them every year and usually killed a few. But the last time I saw him he was on a "jamboree," or spree, and killed his unfortunate horse by tying it up without feeding it or giving it water while he was drinking or drunk, and so he did not make his usual trip. But I imagine there can be few or none left now, and probably the only representatives of the race are in the National Park.

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Morley Roberts's essay: Texas Animals