Saturday, March 22, 2014

Irvin Cobb in 1914

Irvin Cobb (1876-1944) was a journalist best remembered for his stories of Kentucky local color.  One hears faint echoes of Mark Twain in his writing.

from Roughing It De Luxe (1914)

Rabid and His Friends

The Hydrophobic Skunk resides at the extreme bottom of the Grand Cañon and, next to a Southern Republican who never asked for a Federal office, is the rarest of living creatures.  He is so rare that nobody ever saw him—that is, nobody except a native.  I met plenty of tourists who had seen people who had seen him, but never a tourist who had seen him with his own eyes.  In addition to being rare, he is highly gifted.

I think almost anybody will agree with me that the common, ordinary skunk has been most richly dowered by Nature.  To adorn a skunk with any extra qualifications seems as great a waste of the raw material as painting the lily or gilding refined gold.  He is already amply equipped for outdoor pursuits.  Nobody intentionally shoves him round; everybody gives him as much room as he seems to need.  He commands respect—nay, more than that, respect and veneration—wherever he goes.  Joy-riders never run him down and foot passengers avoid crowding him into a corner.  You would think Nature had done amply well by the skunk; but no—the Hydrophobic Skunk comes along and upsets all these calculations.  Besides carrying the traveling credentials of an ordinary skunk, he is rabid in the most rabidissimus form.  He is not mad just part of the time, like one's relatives by marriage—and not mad most of the time, like the old-fashioned railroad ticket agent—but mad all the time—incurably, enthusiastically and unanimously mad!  He is mad and he is glad of it.

We made the acquaintance of the Hydrophobic Skunk when we rode down Hermit Trail. The casual visitor to the Grand Cañon first of all takes the rim drive; then he essays Bright Angel Trail, which is sufficiently scary for his purposes until he gets used to it; and after that he grows more adventurous and tackles Hermit Trail, which is a marvel of corkscrew convolutions, gimleting its way down this red abdominal wound of a cañon to the very gizzard of the world.


Despite all reports to the contrary, I wish to state that it is no trouble at all to eat green peas off a knifeblade—you merely mix them in with potatoes for a cement; and fried steak—take it from an old steak-eater—tastes best when eaten with those tools of Nature's own providing, both hands and your teeth.  An hour passed—busy, yet pleasant—and we were both gorged to the gills and had reared back with our cigars lit to enjoy a third jorum of black coffee apiece, when Johnny, speaking in an offhand way to Bill, who was still hiding away biscuits inside of himself like a parlor prestidigitator, said:

"Seen any of them old hydrophobies the last day or two?"

"Not so many," said Bill casually.  "There was a couple out last night pirootin' round in the moonlight.  I reckon, though, there'll be quite a flock of 'em out tonight.  A new moon always seems to fetch 'em up from the river."

Both of us quit blowing on our coffee and we put the cups down.  I think I was the one who spoke.

"I beg your pardon," I asked, "but what did you say would be out tonight?"

"We were just speakin' to one another about them Hydrophoby Skunks," said Bill apologetically.  "This here Cañon is where they mostly hang out and frolic 'round."

I laid down my cigar, too.  I admit I was interested.

"Oh!" I said softly—like that.  "Is it? Do they?"

"Yes," said Johnny.  "I reckin there's liable to be one come shovin' his old nose into that door any minute.  Or probably two—they mostly travels in pairs—sets, as you might say."

"You'd know one the minute you saw him, though," said Bill.  "They're smaller than a regular skunk and spotted where the other kind is striped.  And they got little red eyes.  You won't have no trouble at all recognizin' one."

It was at this juncture that we both got up and moved back by the stove.  It was warmer there and the chill of evening seemed to be settling down noticeably.

"Funny thing about Hydrophoby Skunks," went on Johnny after a moment of pensive thought—"mad, you know!"

"What makes them mad?"  The two of us asked the question together.

"Born that way!" explained Bill—"mad from the start, and won't never do nothin' to get shut of it."

"Ahem—they never attack humans, I suppose?"

"Don't they?" said Johnny, as if surprised at such ignorance.  "Why, humans is their favorite pastime!  Humans is just pie to a Hydrophoby Skunk.  It ain't really any fun to be bit by a Hydrophoby Skunk neither ." He raised his coffee cup to his lips and imbibed deeply.

"Which you certainly said something then, Johnny," stated Bill.  "You see," he went on, turning to us, "they aim to catch you asleep and they creep up right soft and take holt of you—take holt of a year usually—and clamp their teeth and just hang on for further orders.  Some says they hang on till it thunders, same as snappin' turtles.  But that's a lie, I judge, because there's weeks on a stretch down here when it don't thunder.  All the cases I ever heard of they let go at sun-up."

"It is right painful at the time," said Johnny, taking up the thread of the narrative; "and then in nine days you go mad yourself.  Remember that fellow the Hydrophoby Skunk bit down here by the rapids, Bill?  Let's see now—what was that hombre's name?"

"Williams," supplied Bill—"Heck Williams. I saw him at Flagstaff when they took him there to the hospital.  That guy certainly did carry on regardless.  First he went mad and his eyes turned red, and he got so he didn't have no real use for water—well, them prospectors don't never care much about water anyway—and then he got to snappin' and bitin' and foamin' so's they had to strap him down to his bed.  He got loose though."

"Broke loose, I suppose?" I said.

"No, he bit loose," said Bill with the air of one who would not deceive you even in a matter of small details.

"Do you mean to say he bit those leather straps in two?"

"No, sir; he couldn't reach them," explained Bill, "so he bit the bed in two.  Not in one bite, of course," he went on.  "It took him several.  I saw him after he was laid out.  He really wasn't no credit to himself as a corpse."

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