The Turnbo Manuscripts

by Silas Claiborne Turnbo

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By S. C. Turnbo

There is no denying the fact that venomous reptiles frighten humanity. Most everyone is afraid of snakes. Even harmless serpents have been known to frighten people out of their wits. When an abundance of game existed in the Ozark hills it was common for hunters to camp in the forest all night, or leave their cabins before daybreak and take their station at a certain locality and wait until daylight, and kill a deer on its passway. In the latter case it was rare that the hunter and his family did not feast on fresh venison for breakfast. This sort of hunting was attended with danger if it was carried on during the spring and summer season and early fall on account of poisonous serpents. Joe Hall related a story one day to the writer in which he said that during the pioneer days of Marion County, Ark., Hendereon Hall, himself and others hunted one day south of White River and camped one night in a small narrow hollow that leads into Sister Creek. It was in the month of September and the nights were cool and pleasant and the days were pretty with bright sunshine. "Our camp," said he, "was just up on the side of the hill a few feet below a ledge of rock and a few yards below us was the bed of the branch. During the night one of our party was attacked by a light chill and he arose to try to relieve his aching bones by the warmth of the fire. While sitting in front of the fire groaning and shivering he suddenly rose to his feet and uttered a loud scream and then yelled, "snakes" and millions of them". The remainder of us leaped up from our couches and threw a big lot of pine knots on the fire which soon ignited and made a bright light and were greatly astonished at seeing several copperhead snakes crawling out of a hole under the ledge and coming toward the fire. And we all jumped around pretty lively to avoid them and snatching up clubs, stones or anything in reach and went to fighting them and killed 45 before they quit coming out. It seemed there was a den of them under the ledge and they had collected in there during the warm day for winter quarters and probably the warmth of the fire and light attracted them. Our escape from their fangs was narrow. We stood up the remainder of the night and watched for more snakes, but no more appeared. When daylight came we put all the dead serpents in one heap, and it was the biggest pile of copperheads I ever saw."

"Thresher" Bill Yocum told me of a close call he had with serpents one morning before daybreak which, he said, gave him a worse scare than a wild animal ever did. "Here is how it happened," said he. "In 1855 I was living on East Sugar Loaf Creek a short distance below where Dodd City, Arkansas, now is. I was in the prime of life, robust, and enjoying the best of health. It was little trouble for me to keep a supply of wild meat. If a hunter felt too lazy to tramp the woods in quest of game, all he had to do was to sit down and wait long enough and a deer would be sure almost to come within gun shot range. Of course a hunter could not slay a vast amount of wild game in this way, but he could kill enough to live on and that was all we needed then. One morning before daybreak I went out into the edge of a grove of pine trees one half mile from my cabin and sat down and leaned my back against a white oak tree. It was rather risky to slip out into the woods before daylight and wait an hour or two on account of the approach of a panther to interview a fellow or come in contact with a dreaded serpent. A snake might be laying coiled in a few feet ready to sink his fangs into your flesh, but I had gone out before day frequently to kill deer and never had been bothered so far. The temperature that morning was pleasant and as I sat there and breathed the pure fresh morning air mixed with the flavor from the pine trees I enjoyed the pleasure of contentment and happiness until a rattlesnake began singing in a few feet of me. The serpent was answered by others nearby. The mild and exhilerating temperature seemed to change suddenly to the cold blizzard. I was so cold now that I was froze to the spot. It was too dark to see them but there were several and the singing sounded dreadful. The cry of a panther would have been sweet music by the side of those terrible reptiles. I remained perfectly quiet until I got over my worst scare and then I thought I would leap up and try to jump over them and make my escape but after due reflection I decided not to raise up and make the attempt to make my leap for fear one or more of them might strike me before I could get out of their reach and still I was afraid to remain quiet for fear some of them might crawl up in reach of me and strike. It was a terrible ordeal but I chose to sit still and sat as motionless as possible. I knew it was not long till daybreak but in my perilous trouble it seemed hours. When I first observed the tinge of daybreak in the eastern sky I kept my eyes riveted on that part of the horizon and my ears open to the least noise made by the reptiles. At last it was light enough to view my surroundings and I beheld five rattlesnakes of medium size lying stretched in a few feet of me. Although they were peaceable I rose quickly and sprang away out of danger. Not finding a stout club handy I shot one of the serpents and reloaded my rifle and shot and repeated it until I dispatched them all. The stench from their bodies was almost unbearable. My appetite for fresh venison that morning was gone and I returned to the house empty handed but a wiser man for from that on I made a practice of waiting until daylight before I went out to shoot game."

A similar case of this kind was told my be Mr. Austin Brown who after the Civil War was postmaster at Peel, Arkansas, for many years. Mr. Brown said that in the early spring of 1859 he went out one morning before day to watch at a turkey roost to kill a turkey after it flew down. The locality was on the head of the south fork of East Sugar Loaf Creek, some four miles south of the present site of Lead Hill, Ark. "Arriving near the roost I selected a place to sit down on a knoll where a tree stood and I took my station at the foot of this tree. The spot was quite convenient to shoot from. While waiting for the approach of daylight when the turkeys would begin flying down from the trees I heard something crawling on the dry leaves in two feet of where I was seated. Oh, horrors! It was a snake or a centipede. I felt in spots all over and my flesh seemed to crawl from my bones. After the lapse of a few seconds I was convinced that it was a snake of some sort. Not knowing whether it was a poisonous one or not and that other serpents might be coiled in a few feet of me, I refused to budge an inch and remained in the same position until it was light enough to discern the forms of several serpents lying just in front of me. As the morning dawn grew brighter I recognized seven rattlers which had probably collected there since I occupied the mound. I fell to work killing snakes and did not relinquish the job until I slew them all. Then I pulled for home without giving my attention to the turkeys which by this time were flying down from this roost. Rattlesnakes are more to be feared than wild beasts and everytime I think of my close contact with the rattlers that beautiful morning of the early part of April which was an early spring that year, chilly sensations begin to chase each other up and down my back," said Mr. Brown.

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