A Man from Corpus Christi
or The Adventures of Two Bird Hunters and a Dog in Texan Bogs
By Dr. A.C. Peirce
New York Forest and Stream Publishing Company 1894
Friends who have had the courage to read this book in the manuscript, and to read it through, have quarreled with me over its name. The true hero of the story they aver is the dog Absalom and he should have given title to it. The interest, they claim, centers in him, in his canine eccentricities, his wonderful memory, his patient endurance, and above all his faithful defense or chaperoning, as it were, of those thrown under his protection. All of these they declare make him the central figure of the play in which the human actors&emdash;the Man from Corpus Christi and the Author&emdash;were but subordinate characters, acting their parts only to develop his. The book then, my friends contend, should have been given some such title as " Honest Absalom " or "Absalom the Great."
They may be right as to the chief interest of the story, but to me their advice seems a waste of sentimental and poetic effusion. They certainly manifest a sympathy for the clog which I confess I do not share. Time, which heals all wounds, has not yet softened my heart for him. Much as I love the Man from Corpus Christi, I cannot bring myself to love his dog. If Absalom here appears as the hero, this is not in consequence of any deliberate intention on my part, but is to be accounted for by the fact that I have taken pains to tell everything as it actually happened. For the tale that is told is loaded with great truths, and I am convinced that Absalom's heroic qualities cannot glow more brightly from the pages that follow than does the brightness of the truth itself.
In Which We Get Acquainted
Late one November evening I stepped from the cars at Corpus Christi, and taking a cab, was driven through mud, mire and rain a mile and a half to the house of John M. Priour. Mr. Priour and his family had retired for the night, and, being wholly unacquainted with the man, I wondered how he would feel about being called out of bed by a stranger. He had neither seen nor heard of me, and it seemed not just the right thing for me to attempt an introduction at such an hour. But shortly after a rap at his door my misgivings vanished, for with true Southern hospitality the man welcomed me to his home and offered me lodging under his roof. Outside, the night was a cheerless one, but my host stirred up the drowsy fire in the large open fireplace, and seating ourselves by it, we discussed matters connected with my visit, and various social topics. The man I had thus introduced myself to was pleasant and agreeable, and seated comfortably by his log fire, the rain beating fiercely against the roof and sides of the house, we thought little of time until near midnight. At that hour I retired to the bed which had been provided for me and slept sweetly until morning.
Mr. Priour was a professional hunter; he made hunting his whole business the year around, and as his jaunts extended in every direction he was well acquainted with the country for miles about Corpus Christi. At this season of the year his game was principally wildfowl, and he was constantly making visits to various lakes and other resorts of these birds, being gone from home five and ten days at a time. He also collected specimens in natural history for various parties, and as my principal object in visiting the country was to secure such specimens myself, I could not have found a man better fitted for my companion, and I made arrangements to travel and hunt with him during my stay.
From a neighbor I rented an unoccupied shed, which was to be my headquarters, the landlord kindly furnishing corn husks enough to make a nice soft bed in one corner. I needed no pillows, for the house had been built upon posts which time had now disintegrated to such an extent that they had partly collapsed, allowing the building to drop upon the ground at one side, while the opposite side was two feet in air. With my head to the upper side, I must sleep nicely. The door of this shed was on the grounded side and at first refused to open more than a small space; but by digging away the ground it was made to swing open its whole width. The roof of my new home was quite leaky, but the owner informed me that during some rain storm I could chalk the floor where the water dripped, and thus learn just where it would be unsafe to place perishable articles.
About a week after my arrival at Corpus Christi, Mr. Priour harnessed his two horses, Whitie and Gruya, and with a plentiful supply of ammunition, we started for the Nueces Flats. Our road was mostly through a country covered with a low growth of mesquite and weesatch brush, where pasture fences were much more numerous than houses, of which we saw few. The scraggy growth of brush on each side of the road was more or less inhabited by birds, and we secured several fine specimens. Twelve or fifteen miles from our starting place, we left the beaten road, and traveling four or five miles over a rough and hilly stretch of land, crossed the Nueces River and camped a few miles beyond.
Above the junction of the river with the bay is a large area of low marshy surface; this is the Nueces Flats, which include several thousand acres of land and water. In hundreds of places on the north side of the river, the earth is depressed below the level of the stream; and these depressions, filed with water, are, in places, only separated from each other and the large stream by slight elevations. Replacing the land by water, and the water by land, Nueces Flats would be a large lake containing countless islands, more or less connected by narrow isthmuses. As a rule, the bottoms of these small bodies of water are firm, but a few of those nearest the river are decidedly boggy. On each side of the river, and between the water and the grass-covered land, is a space perhaps twenty yards in width, which is made up of bottomless mud. To venture on to this mud is simply to venture into it, and as it is seemingly without limit in depth, one might better try to walk on the ocean, so far as danger is concerned. To appreciate what "bogged" means, one must have the experience of being in the mud waist deep, feet firmly pressed together, gradually sinking, and no way of deliverance but by turning on the face or side and paddling out regardless of toilet arrangements; depending upon the increase of surface in these positions, to keep mouth and nose out of the semi-fluid slump.
Mr. Priour had spent many days tramping over these flats, and was well acquainted with every foot of the surface. We found wild geese and ducks in abundance; nearly every one of the small ponds was well stocked with them; and my companion knew the exact way to approach each flock unseen. Gulls and terns were also plentiful, and late in the afternoon of the day of our arrival, we killed many fine specimens. These birds frequent the place in search of food, which they find about the strip of mud next the river; and as they were all killed while flying, they almost invariably fell into the water or mire.
After having dropped a good number, we proceeded to fish them out. I secured the few that my gun had shot, by dragging driftwood into the bog and building piers out to them; this method was slow, but it accomplished results in time. Mr. Priour, however, had had more experience in the business, and deliberately removing his coat and hat, he crawled and wallowed around in the mud on his hands and knees in a way that astonished me. Fully one-half of his body was below the surface, and at times it appeared as if he would drop out of sight. With his teeth he seized each bird by the wing, and when his jaws would open no further he paddled ashore and let go his load. In this way he made several trips finally bringing out the last bird; and when he had finished his labor nothing but a pair of eyes was in sight to show that the reeking mass of black mud contained a human being. Little did I think that before leaving Texas; I should many times be as muddy as he was on this occasion
In a Labyrinth.
By the time we had collected our birds the sun had set and shouldering the game we started for our camp two miles away. Here I made a great mistake by taking a route different from that of my companion He knew the way well, but as our wagon stood on a hill and in plain sight I thought there would be no trouble in going to it After walking a short distance I brought up before one of the innumerable ponds, and naturally started to go around it, only to find a second one in my path with its edge leading back toward the river again. Retracing my steps I passed around the other end of the first I had met; but had not gone far when I was confronted by another pond, which as I tried to circumnavigate it, I found connected by a strait with a still larger body of water This was discouraging. It was now quite dark, and after traveling far enough to have gone to camp twice I was still only about half way there; and it seemed that whatever course I might take sooner or later it would bring me to the long side of a pond. I could see the camp-fire that my partner had made and I wished with all my heart that I had kept with him. Finally I became desperate. That campfire was as much mine as Mr Priour's, and I wanted its company. Plunging into the water before me, I waded through. I was wet now, and fixing my eyes on the bright light, I steered straight for camp, wading ponds and mud-holes as often as they crossed my path. I wore a brand-new pair of rubber boots, and had been congratulating myself on how dry they would keep my feet; but as many of the ponds were waist deep, my boots soon filled; and at every step on the land the mixture of mud and water squirted up to my neck.
When I reached camp, Mr. Priour laughed at my experience. He had made the large fire to guide me, and at the time of my arrival was lying by the blaze, watching a duck which was cooking in our kettle. He had removed his clothing and shaken out some of the mud, but was still as wet as a sponge. I emptied my boots and wrung out my pantaloons, and put them on again. We ate a hearty supper of fried duck, and after a long smoke rolled into our blankets for the night. Covered with mud and wet to my waist, I felt like an oyster dipped in batter and ready to fry, only instead of frying I was shivering.
Crossing the Ferry
We spent two days and three nights on the flats, securing a good number of bird skins and ducks; and on the morning of the third day drove up to the river nearly to the ferry by which we had crossed a few days before. There were plenty of drift logs by this stream, and Mr. Priour wished to get a load of them for firewood. Emptying the wagon of all its contents, we piled in the wood. Mr. Priour said, that as the distance was great, we had better take all the wagon could carry; and he shocked me in piling it on so high, log after log being put on as though it was to be a load of hay. These logs were anything but straight, and when enough had been packed on, it was hardly possible to see either wagon-box or wheels, for the branches projected at all quarters. On top of all this heap we put our camp furniture, and I was invited to ride over the ferry and hold the things from spilling; but this I declined to do.
At the place of crossing the river, the water is about ten feet below the top of the bank, and the pitch of this slope is frightfully steep; I therefore preferred to walk carefully behind, and remain upon the bank until the wagon was on board the boat. Taking the line and walking beside the horses, Mr. Priour drove to, and over the bank. There being no breeching to the harness, the instant the wheels started down the declivity, the horses made a dash to get out of the way of the wagon; and the whole outfit struck the boat like an avalanche on wheels. Thankful was I that I had remained on the bank, for the air was filled with ducks, geese, coffee-pots and logs. Several articles of culinary use, including our kettle, went overboard and out of sight; but with a pole we fished out the most of our birds. There was one log in the bottom of the wagon which was much crooked, sticking out behind like a crank. This crank we had turned to one side when loading, but in the slide down the embankment it had rotated one-fourth of a circle, its end resting on the boat; and, as it was firmly wedged in by the logs above, the after wheels of the wagon were lifted about six inches clear of everything. Of course our load had to be repacked before going further; and we had trouble with it all the way home. It was sundown when we reached Corpus again, and I enjoyed my night's sleep much better in my shed than I had on the flats.
Traveling and hunting thus with my new friend, I passed the winter and a part of the spring. Most of our journeys had been short in distance and time; but I became familiar with the scenes about Corpus, and the reserve natural between two strangers like Mr. Priour and myself had been overcome. Being alone with each other for days and weeks at a time, we had, in a few months, become as well acquainted as though living in the same neighborhood for years. We had eaten from the same stew-pot, slept under the same blanket, and bogged in the same mire, until almost a part of each other; and I often wondered how my bird-collecting scheme would have terminated, had I not found such an agreeable companion.
"I'm from Corpus Christi"
For nearly five months Mr. Priour and myself had been freely exposed to the elements; having had with us on our hunting excursions no protection whatever, with the exception of that offered by our bedding. To be sure, we had never been more than fifty miles from Corpus Christi, and in case of very severe weather, could easily have driven to our headquarters in two days. But now we were contemplating an extended tour up the coast, and feeling the need of something adequate to the occasion, we determined to fabricate a shelter that would serve as a tent. We had had no experience in the tent business, and thought the opportunity to display our inventive qualities a grand one. We had seen tents; knew them to be of various styles -- grand, square, upright, etc., but that was the extent of our knowledge.
A day or more was spent in gathering material for our work. We had no canvas, and we wanted none, for our tent was not to be of the canvas variety; in fact, it was to be a variety of everything but canvas.
Our first acquisition was an old blanket, which was followed by cast-off shirts, pantaloons and hats. In fact, everything of a flexible nature that could be secured, we immediately took possession of; and after the accumulation of a pile that in size and quality might have excited envy in a junk dealer, we were ready actually to begin tentmaking.
Put together our material was regular patchwork, and crazy at that; but after Two days had been patiently spent in quilting, we were proud to be in possession of a pyramidal bag, which we thought might afford some protection in stormy weather. (No one can ever know how many times some of the articles were sewed together and ripped apart again, before finding their final place of duty.)
Mr. Priour had provided himself with a new wagon, and we obtained a full complement of empty boxes, selected with great exactness to stow in them. We had an iron stew-pot, a coffee-pot, a tin plate and one fork. Not being of fastidious dispositions, we thought these would be enough in that line, for a company of two. Our stock of ammunition was complete, and consisted of one thousand loaded shells besides twenty-five pounds of powder and a hundred pounds of shot. For provisions, we had thirty pounds of hard-bread, and two pounds of coffee. This was rather a small amount of food to start on a long trip with, but we expected to live principally on game that might fall in our way.
At six o'clock p.m. Thursday, April 7, all was in readiness for the journey; but I suggested to Mr. Priour that, owing to the lateness of the hour, we postpone our start until the following morning, when we could rise with the sun and leave in daylight. But he was exceedingly unwilling to begin a journey on Friday, and insisted upon our starting this night, even if making only a mile or two before coming to camp.
Our Initial Catastrophe
At seven o'clock p.m., Mr. Priour, his dog Absalom, and myself set out to cross Nueces Bay along the staked trail on the reef, and it was quite dark when we reached the further side. Here the wagon road winds along the edge of the water for a few rods, and meets the railroad at right angles. A team may go further by driving up the steep ascent over the railroad and down the precipitous bank on the other side, or l~y driving under the timbers of the bridge, between the bay and the bank. The north way, over the hill, does fairly well with a strong team and empty wagon, but a boat cannot be drawn over it. The hill was made to enable teams to cross the railroad, but on both sides it is about as steep as gravel can be piled. On the other hand, the distance between the ground and the timbers of the bridge south of the hill, is too little to allow the passage of a bulky wagon.
Stopping near this crossing, we found that our wagon was too well filled, and that we should have to remove some of our load before going further; and we were about to do this when without warning, our horses made a dash through the dark passage, and under the bridge. Being frightened by the noise of smashing and falling boxes, the animals started on a run and strewed the beach with boards, splinters, hard bread, stew-pots and shot bags. The sound of horses' hoofs gradually became fainter as they increased the distance from us, until noise of a final crash rang out on the night air, piercing our very hearts with grief. Then everything became quiet, and we knew that something had happened. The fearful silence was soon broken by the thundering voice of my companion:
"Did you hear that crash?"
"I heard it."
"Do you know what it was?"
"No. Do you?"
"Yes, I know what it was; it was my gun. The barrels are wrenched from the stock, and the locks are ruined; and what's more, Absalom's killed!"
"How do you know Absalom's killed?"
"How do I know it!" Didn't you see him dash off after the team? Didn't you see him grab the horses by the bridle? I tell you, that dog's got them horses or he's killed himself a trying it."
Mr. Priour was thoroughly angry, and rich deep words fell from his tongue as he started after the runaways.
Thinking that one could find the team as well as two, I employed myself in gathering up tile wrecked cargo and piling it in heaps convenient for collection. This was no light undertaking The night was dark; the ground was thickly studded with clumps of coarse grass, and by repute the spot was a favorite one for rattlesnakes. Working diligently in the darkness, I trod out camp paraphernalia until I believed all had been recovered. Fortunately I found my pipe, and after unraveling it from a piece of bacon in which it had been woven during its spill, I seated myself upon our box of axle grease, and enjoyed a good smoke, being thankful that I had at least one necessary article left whole.
Absalom is a Snooker
While I was enjoying myself, Absalom emerged from some shrubbery near the bridge, where he had been hiding since the calamity; and, after finding everything quiet, started quickly on after his master.
Accompanied by his dog, Mr. Priour soon returned, and his first words were: "Now I'll be dog-on'd if that Absalom ain't a snooker; what do you suppose he was doing when I got down there?"
"I don't know."
"Well, he was holding them horses by the bits, just like a rope tied to a tree. He grabbed hold the minute they struck out, and you can thank him that you ain't got to go to the Brazos River afoot. He's worth his weight in hair oil any time."
"Where's the wagon?" I asked.
"The wagon's bottom side up in the edge of the bay; and you'd better come down and help get it out, if you don't want to stay here all night."
Righting the wagon was not a very difficult matter, and we soon had our team again attached to it; although the harness had first to be mended in several places. This we were able to do by the light of our lantern which had escaped uninjured.
Driving back to the scene of the accident, we proceeded to load up again; this time, however, things were put into the wagon rather promiscuously, as compared with their proper riding places which had earlier been studied out with mathematical precision. Both our guns were safe, lock, stock and barrel, Priour's prophecy to the contrary notwithstanding; and as our ammunition had been spilled from the wagon before reaching the water, we concluded that our belongings had not been so much injured as we first feared.