by Norma S. Wanlass, Manti, Utah
First Place, 1969 Historical Writing Contest
Chief Walker and his Indians blamed “the Mormons” for the deep snow that first winter of 1849, and for the epidemic of Red Measles later on. What would they have done if they had seen us throwing those hundreds of dreadful, slithering rattlesnakes on the fires, destroying a part of their meager food supply?
The day the company reached Temple Hill it began to rain, the rain turning to snow by nightfall. It snowed until it reached a depth of four feet on the level.
We had camped along the south side of the hill for protection against the north wind, but our covered wagons offered very little shelter or warmth against the bitter cold. The men agreed that there was no way to get into the surrounding mountains for wood to build cabins, so the only alternative was to dig dugouts in the hillside. Papa began digging in the hill of clay and shale behind us.
Adelia, age eight, and Al, age five, and even little Orville, age two, helped push the dirt from the doorway and carry the rocks away. It was better to keep busy than to think about how cold and wet we were.
While we children rested inside, Papa stood back and surveyed the size of the hole and then declared with satisfaction, “There, that ought to keep the five of us out of the storm.”
“Now we’ll all go down to the ‘crick’ and cut some of those willows that’s growin’ along the bank.”
“But Papa,” Adelia protested, “the snows higher’n we are.”
“I’ll go first and push a path thru with my body,” Papa explained, “then you can follow along behind me.”
We soon found that Al and Orville were too short to bring any willows back, even holding their arms above their heads as far as they could reach, and so we called Mama to come and help. Mama had been kinda poorly cause we were going to get a baby brother in early spring, but she came and helped Papa and Adelia.
It took quite a spell but when we got all the willows up to the hole. Papa wove them into another room in the front. Smoke from a fire in there could escape through the willow chinks, while we kept warm and cozy inside the dugout.
It was a long, hungry, cold winter, the snow lasting until May. As soon as we could start clearing the land of sagebrush, the whole family went to work, except the baby DeLaun who was born in March.
One soft, warm, rustling evening when Mama came from the field, a buzzing began as she drew near the willow room. She retreated and it stopped. Then she moved forward and it started again. Cautiously she peered into the willows and there above the doorway was a six-foot rattlesnake, its fangs flicking in and out of its mouth as fast as a hummingbird’s wings. She screamed and the neighbors came running from all directions. They killed it; then another and another. Everywhere they looked snakes were crawling out of the cracks and crevices in the hill. By the hundreds they killed them. At first, the boys cut the buttons off each tail, but by dark, the job had become too tedious. And still, the snakes kept coming.
They built fires so they could see, and threw the dead rattlers on them. On into the night it went.
No one dared or wanted to sleep in the dugouts and one by one the children laid down around the fires and were soon dreaming of scaly, slithery, slippery, striking snakes. Some said they killed fifteen hundred that first night, but no one had bothered to count them. For quite a few days we found coiled snakes in our beds, in our drawers, even in our dishes and kettles. About that time Orville became listless and pale. Mama would feel his forehead for fever and have him stick his tongue out. She made him a tonic by boiling sagebrush, but he didn’t get better. I was sure he wouldn’t, it was such foul-tasting stuff.
One evening Orville picked his bowl of bread and milk up and started toward the doorstep, to sit and eat it.
“Oh, Orville,” Mama said, “why don’t you stay inside tonight? There are so many mosquitoes out there.”
“I want to feed my Nikki,” Orville whined and started to cry. So Mama let him sit on the step.
It wasn’t long until a big rattlesnake crawled out and curled up beside him. Orville would eat one spoonful and give the second one to the snake. It would drink the milk off and Orv would eat the bread.
“Look at this,” Mama hissed, and the whole family crowded forward.
Papa killed the snake!
Orville cried into the night for his “Nikki”. Papa finally consoled him by telling him they would get the buttons tomorrow, and then he could always carry his “Nikki” around with him. Orv was up early the next morning to see that Papa did what he had promised.
Orville got better but you know, even when he grew to be a big boy, he would scuff down the middle of the road, the dust raising about him, twirling those buttons in rhythm as he sang—
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“I had a pet
By the name of Nikki,
Shared my sop
And it made me sickly,
Papa killed it
Cause it was deadly
So ended my poor Nikki.”