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Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

The Biologist's Quest

John M. Oskison

Lake was a collector of small mammal skins for the Smithsonian authorities in Washington and for the British Museum. His work had been done mainly in the mountains of Southern California and on the big stretches of Arizona deserts. In the winter of 1895 there was a good deal of heated discussion between professor McLean of the Pennsylvania Scientific Society and one of the scientists at Washington, over the question of whether or not a certain species of short tailed rat still existed in the Lower California Peninsula. The Smithsonian authority believed that it did, from reports sent in by Aldrich, who had collected in the Southwest until 1893, when he was killed by a superstitious Mexican. The rat, if it existed, was a curious survival, and the scientist who could secure and classify it would earn an enviable reputation. So Lake, in the early spring, received orders to go down into the Lower California region and make a thorough search, following Aldrich's lead.

The collector had a free hand in the matter of expense, and when the baggage man dumped his outfit onto the platform at the Yuma station it might have been mistaken for that of a prospector bound for the Yaqui mountains. There were two hundred traps, varying in size from the little, flat ones used for catching a very small brown field mouse, to the yawning iron-jawed kind that a boy must not play with. There were jars of formalin, vials of arsenic, cornmeal, cotton, dried raisins for bait, and a case of delicate, keen-edged skinning tools that Lake would have swallowed to protect. There was food enough to keep three men alive for six months.

At Yuma Lake went to the keeper of the Sandbar Hotel and asked for reliable guides, Indian or Mexican, for the Lower Colorado river, for he intended to float down the river to the Gulf of Lower California and there rig sails to take him farther down the coast. The next day he engaged Kitti Quist, a nut-faced, broad-footed old Yuma Indian, and "Joe" Maria, a Mexican desert guide.

The boat which the three set out in was as broad and stable as a giant tub. They rigged for it a stubby mast, put in a kit of repair tools, thumped the bottom for possible imperfections and bolted a water-tight chest to the side in which Lake's precious tools, cotton, arsenic and note books were stored. Then the Mexican, after pushing it out into the big, muddy river, stretched himself in the bottom with a cigarette, and told the others that they were safe in the grip of the steady currents for three days. After that, he said, they must row and steer for a day to reach the open water of the Gulf, Joe had gone up and down in this way with traders who had ideas about the payment of duties that are countenanced by neither the Mexican nor the United States Governments.

While the Mexican dozed in the shade of a propped square of blanket, Kitti Quist told the collector tales of the glory which had been Yuma's years before. He said he had been the most feared medicine man in the Southwest. He had laughed in those days at the timorous Yaquis who danced their snake dance with serpents that were young. He had done that dance with five big rattlesnakes twined on his arms and around his neck. But the Yumas grew poorer, less energetic, and careless of the fame of their great man. He had been compelled to go up to Yuma and do tricks for the tourists when the railroad came crawling in from the plains. Then he had guided prospectors to the mountains, and looked on with a smile when they came back half starved and cursing the day they were born. After that he had cured an Arizona Governor of the rheumatism by sucking the man's knee-joints and shoulder blades, and he had become a self-important white man's medicine doctor. But he neglected to advertise and business fell off. Now he was going to help the new doctor catch rats—for what he knew not. And next he would be?—well, he didn't know.

By night the boat was tied to the river bank. The Mexican woke and made camp. Lake used the few minutes of daylight in beating the cactus patches for lizards, showing Kitti Quist how to noose them with a horse hair fixed to a slender pole. He tied tags to these lizards with curious markings on them, and soused them into a formalin jar. When Lake told the old Indian that, fixed in this way, the lizards would not decay if kept until the stars came out no more, he was deeply impressed. The collector caught a desert rat once and skinned it. Kitti Quist watched with astonishment the transformation from a limp corpse to a flabby, empty skin, then back again to a cotton-stuffed, perfectly shaped rat, pinned out in a scampering attitude.

"You have showed me strange medicine tricks with the rat and the lizards," said Kitti Quest once, as the two were exploring the river bank. "Now I will show you what I can do as a Yuma medicine man." Immediately the Indian stepped to the side of a loose stone. He knelt at the side, pushed his hand carefully over the top, then made a quick lunge, and, without suspecting what he was about, Lake saw a four-foot, dull-striped rattler writhing in the grasp of the old man. For five minutes the snake writhed and fought, held firmly by the neck. It hissed the venomous battle note that comes after the warning rattle. Its rattles made an unceasing, deafening whirr. The Indian remained calm, letting the snake draw its body through his free hand as it twisted and contracted. He put out his arm to serve as a support for the dangling body when the whippings grew less violent. He twined the snake, always keeping a tight grip of the neck, around his right arm, and pulled his fingers gently back and forth along the smooth sides. Then he relaxed the grip of the neck, gradually, and slid the fingers of that hand down slowly, imperceptibly. He spread out his hand in three minutes more and extended the snake's head to the finger-tips. Now all motion had ceased; the rattler lay along his hand and arm pliant and quiet as a huge cord; the unwinking eyes were still and the rattling had ceased. Kitti Quist raised the big reptile, shifted a part of its body to his head, then worked it down to the back of the neck, stretching its length along his shoulders until the tail dropped easily over the shoulder blade. The snake's head he transferred to an upraised elbow, then drew it back toward his face. Here it lay, with its nose held close to the big veins of the old man's neck and moved its tail gently from side to side.

Lake stood as helpless and complaisant as the snake. He felt no surprise when he saw the Indian drop slowly to a sitting position and put his left hand to the sand. Soon the snake glided easily down the extended arm to the earth. Suddenly Kitti Quist sprang to his feet and pounced upon the snake again. But he did not touch it this time. He circled it with a swift moving hand while the snake's head followed in rhythmic movement. Soon it fell, quivering and inert. The Indian's eyes lost the stare that had grown into them. He picked up the body of the rattler with no more concern than he would show in handling a whip. Holding the tail, he whirled it about his head and brought it back with a jerk that separated the head and body, and flung the mutilated trunk away. And when he turned to go back to the camp Lake saw that the sweat was thick on the old man's painted forehead.

The voyage down the Colorado river was accomplished in the manner prophesied by the Mexican. The currents were steady and kept clear of dangerous rocks and cliffsides until near the outlet, where they are broken by spits of sand and whirled by tides and cross currents. Then Joe Maria threw away his cigarette and kept awake. He brought the boat out clear on the smooth waters of the Gulf, set the crude sail and began to beat down the Lower California Coast.

Inland stretched a flat expanse of salt marsh, only a few feet above water level when the tide was in, and back of this a range of low, cactus-topped hills. These hills were about five miles from the shore, and, when the boat had gone down the coast for a day, seemed to give promise of a rich trapping ground behind.

Early in the afternoon Lake decided to leave the boat, go inland to the hills, to look the country over, and come back to the shore a few miles farther down. He told the Mexican and Kitti Quist to land where he expected to meet them and got the camp ready. He took a few traps, a pipe and a small pewter flask of water. He set out for the hill-top, skirting a narrow lagoon of sea water that was ten and twenty feet deep as the tide swung in and out. The salt swamp grass was heavy and thick, and Lake was relieved to get out on the hill, though it was but a great sand bar piled and packed by the wind. He went on over the crest, looking for water courses, near which he was likely to find the mammals he wanted. The land was puzzling—where ordinarily a dip would show the trace of a surface stream, there was only an evenly rounded hollow of sand. Yet small brushwood grew in scattered groups along these depressions. The streams, Lake decided, were underground, and he started back towards the boat, intending to go down for another day before going inland again.

As the collector came back across the hill he saw the boat going down the coast and noticed that the wind had increased perceptibly. He decided to go down to the shore and walk along the beach to the camping place. But when he reached the shore a quarter of a mile farther down, he came on another of the canal-like inlets that he had skirted in going back to the plain. It was impassable, and he began to walk towards its head. This was three miles in-shore and when he had rounded it and reached the shore again the afternoon was almost gone and he was tired.

Less than a quarter of a mile farther down another of the invisible salt water canals met him, and for the first time Lake gave a thought to the formation of the long flat marsh. He reflected that tide streams would block his way as long as the flat country was before him. Then he looked at the boat that was, strangely enough, tacking far out in the Gulf, and seemed to be in considerable difficulty. He knew that must get out again to the sandhills and walk down on them until the boat had been brought to shore. He had not spared the half pint of water in the flask, and now, when it flashed upon him that he might spend the night on shore, he grew uncommonly thirsty. But he saved the little that remained, wondering as it splashed and tinkled in the metal if some of it might not be lost by the continual beating and shattering inside.

He was panting when he reached the sandhills again, for he had made nervous haste to get out of that tangle of long salt grass and treacherous tide ditches. He looked eagerly for the boat. What he saw was a scarcely distinguishable flat hull and a slender rectangle of sail which a fierce wind was bellying. Now Lake remembered that this Gulf was swept by little two-day hurricanes that danced in mad fury when they got away from the cactus and hampering sand-hills. He was in the edge of the storm only, yet the flying sand stung his cheek and his dried throat craved the little water that remained in this flask.

The boat would be driven miles out on the Gulf, the watcher knew, and if it survived the hurricane, would land far south of this point. So Lake set out to walk as far as he could towards the possible landing place. Farther down the coast, where the formation changed from the monotone of salt marsh, with its single low relief of yellow sand-hills, it might be possible to find water. But here it would be risking too much to turn inland to seek it. While he was gone the boat might put in unexpectedly, and the two guides, not finding him, sail still farther south.

Unconsciously Lake began to walk fast, and when the darkness closed down he was fairly running toward an invisible boat that sailed in the tail of his eye to an anchorage on the shore directly at his feet. Then he pulled himself up, and walked slowly. Soon lagoons, gulf and salt marsh were lost in the gloom, and only the jagged cactus clumps stood out like giant, distorted shadows on the horizon. Lake took counsel with himself, and lay determinedly down to sleep through the night. He woke often to feel his jacket where the four spoonfuls of tepid water were. But he would not drink. The screaming wind showered sand on him, forcing him to draw the jacket over his head, giving small promise of an early landing for the boat, and questioning its mere survival. The collector got through to the daylight, sleeping a little and dreaming of the wonderful short-tailed rat, swimming forever from bank to bank of a sluggish salt pool that rose and fell as the tide crept in and out.

As the morning broke, Lake, who had been sitting in the sand for a long time, peering distractedly into the darkness, rose and looked over the Gulf. There was no sign of the boat. The wind, its force spent in the night, scarcely ruffled the water. The sun came out big and glowing, and the desert heat soon penetrated the temporary early morning chill. The marooned man was seized with a bitter morning thirst, and raised the flask half way to his lips before he remembered that the little fresh water must be saved for a more dire necessity. He drew off the coat that had begun to weigh him down. He was about to fling it aside when he felt the pewter flask strike against him. He drew it from the coat pocket in a genuine panic. He felt the pipe, a heavy briar, in another pocket, and the thought of smoking with a parched throat made him smile. He threw it with all his strength at a clump of cactus, then trembled at the prodigal waste of a failing energy. Jamming the flask into his shirt bosom, he laid the coat aside, and stepped carefully on. For two hours he kept his head, then the swishing and tinkling of the water in the canteen became maddening. There was a too perfect harmony between its music and the rhythm of his steps. He broke this by making longer strides, then stopping suddenly.

Before noon he sat down in the shade of a cactus. He knew that sleep, when the scorching sun and want of water would drive men crazy, had often saved the sanity of desert travelers. But he could not sleep. He rose when the sun was two hours from the western horizon and tramped doggedly on. For an hour after setting out he tramped slowly, holding his hat clear of his head to protect it from the sun, and to let the faint breeze blow in his hair. To hold it in this way, however, tired him, and soon the eternal rhythm recommenced. A lizard that flirted its tail and ran to cover entered the orchestra of his fevered imagination, its tail going up and down like the baton of a conductor. The music grew louder and clearer, and he forgot that the pewter flask held water that might cool the fever. It was the great drum whose beating kept the whole orchestra from turning to a riotous babble of individual performers. So the drum must not quit beating.

Unconsciously Lake increased his speed under the stimulus of the fever. To his mind the orchestra was in breathless chase of a melody that grew faster and faster in time and louder in volume. There would be one final crash, he knew, when the strange new symphony was ended, and he wondered if the drum would be equal to its part. The crash came as the collector, exhausted from a mad scamper down the side of the sandhills, pitched into the rank salt grass near the edge of a tide inlet.

Lake slept through most of the night from sheer exhaustion. He was conscious when he woke of a slap-slap of sound near. At first he thought it was the lapping of the water against the side of the boat, and wondered if the Mexican had yet cooked the breakfast. Then he rose to search the Gulf with his eyes for a sign of his companions.

He thought he was far south of where he had first landed, but in fact he had come only a few miles. He was sure that he had gone past the point where the boat would put in and turned to tramp back up the coast. He went in, unthinking, to the water's edge, and had to tramp back to the sandhills again. He was at the former symphony rehearsal again by this time. Calling up his straying faculties, Lake deliberately chose a low bit of ground and began to dig with his hands to find water. And he fainted on the edge of an unpromising hole before the sun was in mid-sky. All the while the idea remained fixed in the man's mind that he must not drink the water that he carried.

The shifting of the breeze so that it blew into his face revived Lake early in the afternoon. He sat up and looked at the horizon, where the Gulf met the sky, with an air of calm indifference. He thought only that it would be a novel sight to see a little, full-bodied tub of a boat drop out of the sky and bring a nut-faced old Indian and a Mexican with a cigarette up on the salt marsh. But it was a bore to watch anything so lacking in variety, and Lake, under the impression that he was only to finish an interrupted siesta, stretched himself on his back to die. The flask he placed at his side, determined to take a full drink when the Mexican roused him for supper.

* * * * * * * * *

All through the first night of Lake's absence, Kitti Quist and the Mexican had been driven by the storm out into the Gulf. They realized that it would be impossible to make the land after the hurricane came upon them. They retained a tiny rectangle of sail on the stumpy mast to keep the craft's head square to the waves that drenched the boat from stern to bow, and the gale had driven them far out. And the next day they had sailed back towards the West without sighting the coast line.

In the middle of the second night the boat had jammed its nose into a mud bank, and the two had tied up and waited for the daylight. When the morning broke neither could tell whether this flat marsh, bordered by low sand hills, was the same through which the new doctor had disappeared, or another, fifty miles down the coast. They decided to sail north on the chance of having passed the collector. All day they sailed, firing a heavily loaded rifle at intervals. Once the Indian had gone ashore to search the tall salt marsh. But he met the sullen tide streams and had to get back to the boat. The possibility that Lake might be without water had not occurred to them, and they thought only of relieving his anxiety about themselves and the boat.

Near sundown Kitti Quist pointed out a spit of sand, upon which he said the white man had gone ashore. The Mexican doubted, and the boat was pulled in against the bank. The Indian was right—Lake's tracks led off towards the sand hills. He said that they would tie up the boat and follow the tracks. But Joe Maria was lazy, and suggested that they set off a great blast of gunpowder. Lake, he declared, would hear it if he was within reach and come to them. Kitti Quist agreed; and when Lake was about to pass into the long sleep, which he thought, fretfully, he had been wanting for ages, the roar of the blast brought him to his knees.

What he saw was worth looking at—it provided variety. A big column of smoke was going up, and at one side were a nut-faced old Indian staring at him, and a lazy Mexican waving his sombrero frantically. A little, full-bodied tub of a boat was there, trying to climb ashore. He would go and see if supper was ready. But his strength, nerve, voice, feelings were gone—he tottered headlong into the grass.

The Mexican had seen the collector rise from the grass like a spectre, and yelled to Kitti Quist to look. They found Lake, his tongue swollen and protruding, his face scorched, holding a flask with four spoonsful of tepid water still in it. They wondered at that, but set it down to the new doctor's curious theories. They used the water to revive Lake, and carried him to the boat. The next day they sailed back for the mouth of the Colorado river. The two guides brought Lake's wandering mind back to the rational world, and restored his parched face and swollen tongue to a comparatively normal state by a wise use of broths and careful watchfulness. Two days before the awkward tub was pulled up at the Yuma landing Lake could talk, but with considerable difficulty, of his experiences.

"The doctor will go back for the rats when he is rested?" inquired Kitti Quist as he bustled about the boat. He accidentally kicked Lake's water flask into view.

"Go back!" the collector shouted hoarsely. "Kitti Quist," he went on quietly, "the white Medicine Man can no longer do strange medicine tricks with the rats. Not with the short tailed rats," he added under his breath.

Lake gave his outfit, even the delicate, keen-edged skinning tools, to Kitti Quist, and the Mexican guide. Then he took the train for San Francisco. Cooley, who went down to Yuma the next spring to catch chipmunks for the new zoological park in New York, bought the traps and cotton from the old Medicine Man. Professor McLean, of the Pennsylvania Scientific Society, published a pamphlet in the fall of 1897 to show that the short-tailed rat described by the Smithsonian authority never existed except in the imagination.


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