ANNA AND THE RATTLER

By Mrs. Cornell

A voice rose wrathfully in the back yard, "Wee-lie! What iss this?
You fell in the pig trough? Come here, that I beat you! Come here,
I say!"

Willie did not accept the invitation. A shrill whimpering was his sole response. Twelve-year-old Anna stepped to the kitchen door, peering round the sash. "Pa's scolding Willie," she announced to her mother.

The storm continued to rage in the back yard.

"Shust look at your clothes! Go now! To the creek wit' you! Come not in the house until you are cleaned. Ach!"

Ex-Sea-Captain Schulz, now prune-grower in the mountain boundary west of Santa Clara Valley, turned in at the kitchen door.

"I don't know what to do wit' the boy. Go, mine Anna, get the lad a clean shirt, and take it down to the creek."

On Anna's return from the bathing pool she said softly to her mother, "Willie isn't at the creek. Perhaps he has run off."

"O child, don't bother me about Willie! He'll run back again fast enough, he's that scared of the mountains and the trees."

Anna was conscious of an undercurrent of sympathy with the forlorn waif her father had brought from the city some months before. The very love and awe with which the mountains filled her imaginative soul gave her comprehension of the fear with which they imbued the dull-witted offspring of San Francisco gutters.

Willie did not return all that long, August day. The captain and his American wife spread and dipped prunes busily on the hot south slope. The box-laden wagon rolled by at intervals. Household duties went helter-skelter under Anna's management. At six o'clock Mrs. Schulz, hot and tired, wakened her lazy little daughter, outstretched beneath the hollyhocks and poppies in the small front garden.

"For gracious sake, Anna! Hurry! You've not done the dinner dishes!"

"Have the cows come?" Anna asked, resourcefully.

"Land! If I hadn't forgotten about Willie! Come—hurry! You'll have to go for the cows. I'll wash the dishes."

Anna felt quite in the mood to go for the cows. It meant an hour or so of patting barefooted and bare headed along the soft dust of the road, or over the slippery brown grass of the mountain pastures, with tall pines on every hand and a gold-blue sky above.

She mused about the missing Willie. Had he carried out his occasional threat to run away?

"The road is open, go when you like," was her father's one reply to such futile outbursts. But they well knew the road was not open to Willie. The six mountain miles intervening between their ranch and the station formed an impassable barrier to his timorous soul.

"I guess he's afraid of the bigness of things," Anna concluded. "And he's got no call to run away. Papa threatens him, but he's never laid hand on him yet. I s'pose it's on account of the bath he ran away."

There was no Willie at the bathing-pool. The checked gingham shirt fluttered lonesomely where she had that morning placed it.

Some minutes later, shuffling deliciously among the dappled leaves of a hill trail, she sprang aside in quick dismay.

"Goodness!" What had seemed to be a bunch of dry leaves and grass coiled swiftly, with the rattling whir that goes straight to the fear center of the human heart. In a flash Anna's hands were full of rocks. The first article in every California mountain child's education is to destroy every rattlesnake that comes in sight. Anna dodged the first strike of the snake, and before he could get nearer she began a fusillade of such efficiency that the reptile enemy sought retreat.

Then Anna was privileged to witness a strange thing—a very strange thing; so unusual, in fact, that when reported to the head of the zoological department of the State university that conservative gentleman would have given the story little credence had it not been for the unimpeachable authority of a celebrated naturalist, who had reported it as occasionally occurring among the large, much-to-be-dreaded species of the Eastern States—the Crotalus horrible, or banded rattler.

To Anna's unutterable surprise, the snake turned for refuge to a near-by oak-tree. Perhaps he came against it unintentionally, as the rattlesnake sees badly by daylight. At any rate, he reared his head against it much as he would have done in ascending the side of a sunny boulder in the early days of his chilled awakening from his winter sleep.

He writhed spirally but slowly up its rough trunk, which seemed from eighteen to twenty inches in circumference. When the rocks ceased flying he would halt, evidently not half-liking his task, to wave his bluntly triangular head in the direction where the moving shadow indicated to his blurred vision the position of his enemy. But on the resumption of active hostilities, he would begin again his painful ascent.

"Ow-w-w-ch!" sounded a howl from above.

Looking up at the cry, Anna discerned among the clustering leaves of the black oak a huddled figure, with raccoon-like eyes, peering down at the mounting snake, to escape from which he had, in fact, climbed the tree.

"Willie," she shouted, "jump! The snake's coming! Jump!"

"Ow-w-w-ch!" he continued to wail.

The snake stopped, confused, craning its head upward at the new complication, then downward at its known adversary. Its hesitation would make Willie's escape practicable, if he could conquer his crazy fear.

"Willie, break off a limb—beat it back! I can run!"

The snake undulated a few inches farther. The reiterated cry was
Willie's only response. Anna's quick eye saw another chance.

"There's that big limb on the redwood. You can reach it. Swing across. It's easy. You must!" stamping. "O Willie, do it! Do it!"

Her sailor father had often reproved Anna for her delight in climbing and swinging from tree to tree, by means of her long arms and practised hands.

"It iss not goodt for you to be a monkey, mine Anna," he would say. "Little girls need nefer to go to the masthead. Thou hast no call to be a sailor. Be only a brave kindchen, and help our goodt mother wit' the dishes."

His admonition would dissolve in an unrestrained roar of laughter as she wickedly "shinned" up the porch post to a coign of vantage on the vine-covered roof.

But she could not climb the tree where the snake still clung. There was the neighboring redwood, huge-girthed, smooth-boled, with limbs out of reach, yet with the lowest bough almost touching the limb on which Willie crouched, mechanically clutching the body of the tree, but dumb and stupefied with the horror of his situation.

Anna hurriedly piled large rocks under a thick, broken branch-stump of the redwood, which was at least eight feet from the ground. Four times she leaped upward and fell back, wounding her tough little feet. She noticed blood-stains on the rocks as she heaped them with a broader base for her fifth attempt. The snake rested, waving his head downward as if in query. Fortunately, he was full and sluggish.

Once more Anna crouched and shot upward. Her right hand caught the projecting stump, her left easily followed. Clasping the decreasing trunk of the tree with her slim, muscular legs, hanging also by her hands, she dropped her head backward to take observation. The snake hung out, also, toward her, from his tree, then resumed his deliberate climbing. Evidently the task was neither easy nor to his liking.

Anna hitched breathlessly up toward the coveted limb. Reaching it, she took out her jack-knife,—inseparable companion,—scientifically cut a wedge from a short limb above her, and broke off the weakened branch. Recovering her balance, she reached out with this flexible club, but could not touch the snake, now roused to accelerated activity.

Holding her weapon between her teeth, Anna worked her way nearly to the end of her tough support. Throwing out her right hand, she was able to catch the big limb, at the base of which Willie, almost insensible, still huddled. Then she swung, pendulum-like, by her hands, increasing her momentum. At the right moment she released the redwood bough and flung her light body full upon the young oak. Grasping the limb with both hands, she hauled herself up beside the terrified boy.

The snake, shaken by the tumult above, wavered and stopped. As a rule, a rattlesnake, conscious of his defense, makes a good fight; but here the conditions were unusual and confusing. On level ground, where he could have coiled, and where his sensitive under surface could have slid comfortably over smooth earth, he would not have shirked combat when cornered. Now, with his enemy mysteriously above, his one idea seemed to be escape.

Willie jabbered an idiotic welcome.

"He can't strike until he gets clear here," Anna reassured him. "He can't coil."

Her rapid blows still further dismayed her antagonist. He bit viciously at the stick, touching it more than once; for the rattler's strike is deadly swift, despite his languid locomotion.

At last Anna, settling herself firmly on the limb, raised her club with both hands and delivered a slashing blow on the neck of her foe, breaking, as they afterward found, his vertebral column.

The darting head hung limp; a progressive loosening ran through the mottled coils; there was a slight rasping sound, a thud, and then a whitish heap on the ground, which Anna cleared when, swinging down by her hands to a safe distance, she leaped lightly to the ground.

Willie followed, dazed and fearful. He helped round up the cows, casting furtive glances ahead and on each side at every footstep. Before entering the house, he slunk, although still agonized with fear, through the golden twilight to the abhorred bathing-pool and the languidly fluttering cross-bars of the repudiated gingham shirt.

But Anna, too ill for supper, crept into her father's arms, where he sat on the vine-darkened veranda, and fell asleep on his shoulder.

"Ach, mine Anna," the captain said, tenderly, "it iss sometimes goodt for little girls to make themselves to be sailors!"