Backroads

Well camouflaged in their environment, rattlesnakes actually serve nature’s ecological balance as efficient prey to rodents and other small animals. Reports of snake bites are on the increase in Texas. Texas Poison Centers have seen a more than 40 percent increase in snake bite calls during 2020.

Just as the Temple-bound Santa Fe train pulled near the Cameron depot in May 1914, a railway employee shot four surly passengers dead.

No doubt. Those four slithering creeps were hiss-tory. Snakes on a train were no movie plot.

Two Temple passengers — both human — Hermann Ernst August Otto (1853-1934) and Herbert Marion McCelvey (1879-1946) sprang into action. They rushed to the baggage car, expecting to find armed desperadoes intent on robbing the train. Otto was armed with his wife’s umbrella; McCelvey grabbed a soda bottle as he ran past the news butcher while thunderous bangs forced passengers in the adjacent smoker car and first-class coach to duck under their seats.

As the courageous duo stormed through the door, they were shocked at the scene: The railway employee was backed into a corner of the baggage car. Surrounding him were four dead rattlesnakes. Pistol-smoke clouds curled around the jumbled suitcases and up to the roof.

The employee explained that he was working in the baggage car when he heard an ominous rattling burr behind him. Turning around, he glanced at what he called “a monster rattler” giving some “rattle-tude” and about to strike. Without a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed his six-shooter and dispatched the varmint with two bullets.

Then he saw three more primed to strike. The employee realized that each bullet would have to count because he just had spent a third of his ammunition.

Boom, boom, boom.

Boom! The last bullet was expended for luck. In just a few seconds, the remaining three rattlers joined their brother in the reptilian hereafter. The only disappointment was that neither Otto nor McCelvey had an opportunity to use their weapons of convenience — the trusty umbrella and the bottle.

Before their untimely demise, the slinky quartet was en route from a Wharton snake farm to a North Texas circus sideshow.

Just the idea of “snakes on a train” can elicit shutters from wary passengers. Like them or not, rattlesnakes have figured prominently in local lore, especially since Bell County has an ample supply peeking under rocks.

Rattlers actually serve nature’s ecological balance as efficient prey to rodents and other small animals. They are also the source for much folklore — some of dubious scientific authenticity. Among the most audacious purveyor of scaly tales was J. Frank Dobie’s posthumous tome, “Rattlesnakes” (University of Texas Press, 1966), that spinned every yarn he ever heard like an ouroboros.

“The way to make a record at snake-killing,” Dobie wrote, “is to be off away from the tape measures or yardsticks or scales and not to have too many witnesses.”

So, is it true that rattlesnakes are believed to swallow their young and to live in peace with prairie dogs in their holes? Were cowboys correct in believing that a horsehair rope coiled around a camp bed would repel rattlesnakes? What about the tale concerning the roadrunner killing a rattler by building a corral of thorns or prickly pears around it and forcing it to starve to death?

Maybe the only two who knew for sure were Bill and Pat Wallace, two former Bosque County farmhands who moved to the Sparta community, Bell County, in 1930 looking for work during the Great Depression.

They couldn’t find jobs and were too proud to accept relief. So, they entered a line of work that didn’t have too many takers — catching rattlers for a living.

By 1937, the Temple Daily Telegram featured them as experts on serpentine lifestyles.

“Through these hills and canyons wander two silent men, stalking the deadly rattlesnake as a means of livelihood,” the Telegram began. “The peculiar buzzing sound caused by the rapid vibrations of the rattles … gives these boys the same thrill that an angler would get from hearing a large bass strike among the lily pads.”

Each day the brothers scoured rolling hills, flipping stone hidey-holes and crawling in caves. The Wallace brothers developed a 10-foot-long staff with a lever-controlled metal clamp.

This immobilized the snake so that they could “milk” venom from the snake’s fangs. The venom was then sold to local physicians and hospitals to manufacture antidotes. They also had a mental compendium of snakebite remedies because even they could not escape fangs unscathed.

The Wallace brothers took great care to capture the reptiles, tying them in cloth sacks and selling them to snake farms, circuses and leather crafters. They classified their bounty according to coloring: black diamond, rusty reds, yellows and “coon tail,” so called because its striped tail resembled a raccoon’s.

The Wallaces also dispelled some erroneous beliefs about rattler habits. They disputed that a rattler never strikes except when it’s coiled and rattling. “A snake can and will strike in any position that it happens to be in when disturbed,” they said.

Fifteen of the 68 species of Texas snakes are poisonous, including the coral snake, western cottonmouth, three copperhead species and 10 rattlesnakes. The western diamondback rattler is responsible for more than half the cases of poisonous snakebite and is the culprit in almost all instances of snakebite deaths.

Although snakes are dormant in cold months and active as the weather warms, herpetologists and wildlife specialists recommend constant vigilance when outdoors. Reports of snake bites are on the increase in Texas. Texas Poison Centers have seen a more than 40 percent increase in snake bite calls during 2020.

According to snake bite statistics from Texas Parks & Wildlife, about 7,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States yearly. One out of 500 of those snakebites result in death. In Texas, only one or two die from venomous snake bites, and half of all those are “dry,” meaning the snake doesn’t inject venom into the victim.