Across the Palm Desert

from ; Thirty Years on The Frontier by ROBERT McREYNOLDS

An ancient fight as ancient as the time dividing the bird from the serpent, a fight thousands of times repeated in the lonely places of the earth each year, but which man seldom sees, was witnessed by Mark Witherspoon and myself on the borders of the Palm Desert in California, where we had come in the search for gold. It was a struggle to the finish between an eagle and a big rattlesnake. Death was the referee, as he is in all the contests waged under nature’s code of fang and claw.

There are two things men may not know, so it is said: “The way of the serpent upon the rock; the eagle soaring in the sky.” Each has a wonderful power which man does not understand does not understand any more than he does why they always fight when they meet and that they always should and will, so long as there are serpents upon the rocks and eagles soaring in the sky. If there were no eagles, the rattlesnakes would have no enemy in the sky or upon the earth, save man, to fear. The eagle likewise has no fear of anything, unless it be the glistening
yellow and brown poisonous creature of the rocks the rattler.

Thus it lives forever the death feud of the eagle of the Montezumas and the serpent father of the Moki’s the rattler.

Golden eagle

The eagle

How it began I did not see. I was standing near the top of a big stony crag that glistened in the bright light looking over the vast opens and great basins of the Palm Desert which we were to cross, when my attention was attracted by the flop of something striking the sands a hundred feet away. I could not see what it was, but a moment later I saw an eagle swoop down and rise slowly, holding within its mailed claws, a snake. The big bird soared up a hundred feet or more and shook the snake loose, which fell twisting and coiling with a distinctly audible “flop” the noise that first attracted my attention.

Again and again the bird swooped, arose with the serpent and dropped it, while Witherspoon drew closer and closer to watch.

Then the eagle a young one, as we could tell by its size and plumage struck and failed to rise. Witherspoon was now close enough to see everything that happened.

The young bird had almost exhausted itself in its struggles with the snake, and may, too, have been bitten by it. At any rate, it was upon the sands, its wings slightly spread, as if from the heat its mouth open. The snake was recovering from its jolting fall, and slowly gathering its coils.

A rattlesnake

It rested a moment in position, and then struck the eagle, the fangs entering the corner of the bird’s mouth, in the soft tissues at the base of the beak.

The eagle recovered from the shock, stood motionless a few seconds, while the rattler watched as only a rattler can, and spreading out its wings, toppled over.

Then the man man who hates serpents as the eagle does put forth his hand, using a power more wonderful than that of either. There was a puff of white smoke in the clear air and the report of a pistol rang among the glistening wind-polished rocks, and the snake was a mangled, bright, still thing that the ants began to gather about.

“It was unjust maybe,” remarked Witherspoon. “The snake had won fairly he was entitled to go his way, a terror for all the furry little bright things hereabouts. ” ” But I couldn’t help it.” “Someway that slaying by poison, even if it is done in the open, doesn’t seem fair. ” “Then, too, a man hates to see the emblem of his country’s armies and navies, the triumphant eagle of thunderbolts, lying in the sunshine dead, and that by a serpent.”

Desert rats - short story

Truer hearts I never expect to find.

We had purchased a mustang in San Luis Obispo and loaded him with our stock of flour, bacon, frying pans, blankets, etc., and was resting on the borders of the Palm Desert, which we intended to cross the next morning, to the Mexican dry diggings, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, when the battle between the eagle and rattler furnished the topic of conversation all the afternoon. From San Luis Obispo we had taken the trail that led over the mountains and through the beautiful Santa Margarita Valley. Of all the places I have ever seen, I think this valley came the nearest to being an earthly paradise. It is seven miles in length, five in breadth, and is walled on all sides, except a narrow pass, by the lofty Santa Lucia Mountains. Through the center of the valley flows the headwaters of the Salanis Eiver. Giant live oak trees studded the valley at almost regular intervals, as if they had been planted by the hand of man.

The earth was a carpet of green verdure, with splashes of the yellow wild mustard and varied hues of the many different semi-tropical flowers. Two days after passing through this Eden, we began our toilsome march across an arm of the Palm Desert. When we reached the diggings we found a group of motley Mexicans, who good naturedly swarmed about us and showed us a camping place near a spring, but its waters were so impregnated with sulphates of magnesia and sodium, that we found it impossible to use it. We moved our camp about a mile further up the canyon, near the quarters of a sheep herder, where we found good water and were free from the Mexicans. They taught us, however, the art of dry washing the gold from the loose earth of the placer claim which we had staked off. Here, for more than three months, we toiled. When our supplies run short, we sent for more by the man who came once a week to bring provisions and look after his interests on the sheep ranch. I always pitied that sheep herder. He had several hundred to care for, and their continual bleating sounded dismally in the solitude of the mountains, and when he lighted his bivouac fire at night, it always seemed like a signal of distress.

From the red earth we gathered the golden grains, and when the stars came out at night, and the mountains took on their shadowy gloom, we talked of home two thousand miles away, and often wondered at the enigma of creation. Then came a time when by exposure to the damp and dews, and living upon poor food, we both began to fall sick. Medicine was out of the question, and so with our precious packet of gold dust upon our persons, we loaded our mustang with our camp equipments and took up our march toward San Luis Obispo.

It was in the early dawn of the morning when we started across the arm of the Palm Desert. The sun rose like a ball of fire in a cloudless sky and heated the sands until they parched and blistered our faces. By noon our water supply was exhausted, and soon after I threw away the Winchester which I carried, for I could no longer bear the burden. If it has not been found by some weary pilgrim it lies there today with its barrel as bright in that rainless valley as it was when I threw it down.

We walked in silence all that torrid afternoon. The poor mustang crept along, led by Mark, while we, with bloodshot eyes and fevered brains, could but feebly keep in sight the jutting mountain spur where we would find a haven of rest.

Desert palm (Joshua trees)

Desert palm (Joshua trees)

Exhausted, I sat down in the scant shade of a desert palm. Its sparse branches rattled in the hot wind like dried sunflower stalks, and then, in my imagination, I stood a few feet away and saw myself lying dead on the sands, with face drawn and withered and dead eyes staring at the skies.

I roused myself from the horrible dream and walked on. It was long after the sun had dipped beyond the mountain crest, and the Palm Desert was shrouded in the gloom of night, that we reached a pool of clear water, fed by a generous spring. We drank of its waters and bathed our fevered brows, and lay down in the warm sands to awake ever and anon in fitful dreams. It seemed I was buried in the stone coffins of Egypt, where I lay for a thousand years in torrid heat, with unquenchable thirst. Whenever I awoke, I drew myself to the edge of the pool, drank
deeply of its refreshing waters, and fell asleep again, repeating the same thing perhaps twenty times during the night.

How soon we forget our troubles, and oh, how soon we forget that we have passed through the valley of the shadow, and that a merciful God has watched over our destinies. Within a week after this, when Mark and I came so near perishing on the Palm Desert, we had purchased new summer clothes and were sitting about the best hotel in San Luis Obispo, smoking fine cigars and playing the part of high-toned young gentlemen generally.