By Billy Smith
This is a tale, a true tale, about prairie dogs, horses, ropes and hondos—all of the things that make storytelling worth the effort. Oh, and rattlesnakes. And yes, be warned, some animals lost their lives in this tale.
Desert folks have had a lengthy relationship with coiled vipers. Mine dates back to my childhood working the cotton fields of West Texas. These slithering curiosities found sanctuary under the rich and broad leaves of cotton stalks. My brother and I carried sharpened hoes through the fields, stalking anything that didn’t produce cotton. Morning Glories—beautiful for non-cotton farmers, but menacing for those who made their living from the cotton fields—were always targets. Farmers, particularly my grandmother, cursed them for their ability to strangle row after row of cash-producing cotton plants.
“Don’t leave a single one standing,” she’d say, like a general preparing us to storm a battlefield. Finding rattlers in this milieu was uncommon, rate-worthy and memorable. “Oh, yeah,” she’d say, “and watch out for rattlers,” as if somehow the magenta and aromatic Morning Glory blooms posed a greater threat to her grandchildren than the venomous snakes’ fangs. Our family understood priorities.
The ubiquitous prairie dog towns that dot the desert are a different matter altogether. The presence of prairie dogs necessarily represents the appearance of burrowing owls and rattlesnakes. Only short-timers are surprised to find rattlesnakes in prairie dog towns. Burrowing owls take advantage of empty rodent holes, and rattlesnakes do them the favor of helping to empty the burrows of prairie dogs—it’s simply one of those circle-of-life things. A little tip for my northern- and city-dwelling friends: if you see a prairie dog hole with what looks like bird poop at the entrance, don’t peek inside.
Unlike we’re told in made-up cowboy movie lore, horses don’t usually break in half at the sight of a rattlesnake, especially those for whom the desert is home. When a rattlesnake bites a desert horse, it’s usually because the horse’s curiosity outstripped his sensibilities and he stuck his snout where it didn’t belong. Horses die from snake bites—not so much because of the venom, but because their noses swell, closing off oxygen intake can causing suffocation. Ranchers without quick access to veterinary care have been known to shove sawed-off garden hoses in a snake-bitten snout, allowing the horse to both breathe and graze. When the swelling subsides, the garden hoses fall harmlessly to the ground. Ranchers and farmers have for millennium possessed the skill of invention; seeing a horse in the pasture with an oversized head and garden hoses protruding from its snout is odd at best and brilliant in effectiveness.
My last experience with prairie dogs and rattlesnakes introduced me to the feats of a young, but thoroughly schooled, cowboy who accompanied my son, several others and me on a leisurely trail ride across the shallow rim of West Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon. Byron was a local college student and part-time cowboy guide who joined us through the treacherous trail while on a mission to thin out the population of rattlesnakes that had invaded the prairie dog town, a popular tourist destination.
He was a cowboy of the throwback sort: quiet, witty, articulate and extraordinarily handy. It was evident in his speech and how he efficiently handled a horse that he’d seen a few things. But it was his rope skills that really sealed the deal—he could accomplish what I had only done with a gun … or a sharp hoe.
Like any worthy cowboy, our guide carried his rope with him even on a leisurely trail ride. You never know when you’ll need a rope, after all. Cowboys make a practice of roping anything with legs and an endless set of inanimate objects.
“You can rope anything you can get the rope off of,” my Uncle Bill used to counsel.
I pondered it a bit as an 8-year-old with a new rope, and I concluded roping one of his steers from the ground was a bad idea; when my young nephew decided to test his heeling skills on my aging mother, hellfire and damnation nearly ensued, and I reflected on how smart I was some 30 years earlier to avoid the temptation of roping something from which I was poorly suited to retrieve said rope.
Our guide, on the other hand, looked as if he’d never heeded his own quiet voice of reason and had roped just about everything; Byron’s chiseled faced, dotted with a few well-placed scars, let me believe he didn’t possess that voice of caution.
Alerted to the prairie dog town, we slowly guided our horses through the labyrinth of holes looking for both footfall space and a coiled wad of muscle and fangs, which we located almost immediately.
Byron freed his rope from his rope strap, tightened his loop down to the hondo, making a wad of treated nylon that was too small and incapable of capturing anything. He made a single Houlihan-styled, clockwise, loopless swing and followed that with a whip-action, underhanded toss. It reached a couple dozen feet forward and snapped the venomous menace’s bulbous head back, breaking its neck. His horse never flinched. The rattler writhed, coiled and slowly gave itself to the desert sand, dead. My young son sat on his horse, wide-eyed, and watched the whole thing.
After a silent 10 seconds or so, as we watched the disturbed dust slowly replace itself around the prairie dog hole, Byron and I had a brief exchange.
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”