A Daring Undertaking

Ashley Davidson Click to

Davidson_Ashley_Shenandoah_photoAshley Davidson’s stories have appeared in Five Chapters, Meridian, Nashville Review, Sou’wester, and other journals. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Sergeant Erastus Snow, United States Army Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory, to the Honorable Jefferson Davis, Secretary, United States Department of War, Sept. 15th 1856.

Let me first inform you of the caravan of thirteen camels and dromedaries of mixed variety, transferred safely into Fort Defiance from among the cargo of thirty-three originally landed at Indianola, Texas by the storeship Supply on the tenth day of February, 18 and 56.

I am sorry to report my former commander, Lieutenant “Ned” Beale, though upright and accomplished by past actions, has shown himself lately crippled by an overly cautious approach. He believes the camels to require still additional time to recover from the effects of the long sea voyage and has made no use of them since their establishment at Camp Verde, Texas.

In these tumultuous times, California lying one hundred twenty days distant and defenseless, I have therefore undertaken to lead a rapid expedition through the harsh and thirsty desert to establish the desired wagon dugway through the new-acquired West to the Pacific Frontier.

Included with this caravan have been transferred the appropriate tack, some fifty pounds of hard cheese, tea, a quantity of gunpowder (for confrontation with the hostiles) as well as the beasts’ imported handler, Hadji Ali, who the honest men recruited locally have taken to calling by the more readily pronounceable sobriquet, Hi Jolly.

Hi Jolly has set about teaching the men to master the beasts, given to spitting, biting and even kicking those who seek to dominate them. They chew the thorniest of forage and spew needles with a dart-thrower’s accuracy, skewering any man within ten paces. Though their diet is plain, their fragrance is significant. None appear to have been ridden since their purchase and transfer from the Levant last year, but Hi Jolly assures me the colossuses are easily broken. The new recruits are all fine horsemen, accustomed to braving the steep acclivities and venomous inhabitants of a terrain too savage and rocky to be tamed by modern rail.

There is much diversity among the shipment, which includes both a young female born on the voyage, measuring but five feet at her hump, and a male giant of reddish coloration of nearly twice this, requiring a rope ladder to be fashioned from the fibers of the century plant, thrown over his apex, and weighted by a second man on the opposite side in order for a rider to mount. Once the recruits have gained sufficient prowess, we shall set out to survey and discover. According to Hi Jolly, such skill in camelry should take no more than a few weeks to acquire.

In the interim, my men prevail over me to request that my rank be improved from “sergeant” to “lieutenant,” our daring undertaking proving me commensurate in every way to Lt. Beale. Though I personally abhor such a bold appeal, I am, after all, but a humble servant to my men, who eagerly await your swift authorization of said increase.

Mr. Silas Reeves, Private Secretary to Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, United States Department of War, to Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, Camel Corps, Camp Verde, Texas, Jan. 2nd, 1857

The Secretary thanks you for your letter apprising him of the recent desertion of Sergeant Erastus Snow and the concurrent kidnapping of the Turkish handler Hadji Ali along with thirteen camels of the formerly arrived shipment and the plundering of certain staples at your post. The delusional hothead Snow has written to the Secretary from Ft. Defiance and we shall endeavor to detain him there. A man so providentially ill-named shall soon be “melted.”

The Secretary thanks you for your continued patience in attendance of the second shipment of camels and shares your hope that your expedition may soon set out.

Lieutenant Erastus Snow, United States Army Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to Mrs. Nicolette Baldwin Snow, Charlottesville, Virginia, Feb. 14th, 1857

To see me now, my dearheart, you would think your husband an emissary of the Ottomans traipsing along the white dunes of the Sahara atop Fighting Dolly, as my dromedary has been named, despite my fair complexion and the silken curls you so oft coiled around your sweet fingers. (My scalp, I’m told, would command a greater ransom among the hostiles than the sum total of all those of our company, as what men do have hairs remaining have allowed them to be rendered so boar-wiry by the moistureless air their prick would draw blood from the leatheriest of hands.)

You will recall from my previous letter that a dromedary is a swift camel and therefore more suitable to an ascending officer (for my dearheart, you are now the wife of a lieutenant!) The burden camels are easier to maneuver and better left to the ragtag collection of prospectors and cattle rustlers I have recruited into our Corps; there are no other kind of men to be had in the territory. All our beasts with the exception of two are of the one-humped Arabian variety, the two-humped Bactrians being very slow and ornery, like packmules.

I have enticed the men with tales of fortune to be had in the wilds of the brawny, nameless mountains of the West, offering as proof the fine gold watch of which you so generously made me caretaker on the eve of my departure. They grow silent and attentive as children upon its removal from my pocket and crowd around to glimpse their reflections in the outer case (lately and regrettably scratched, though your dear father’s initials remain legible, rest his soul). The illiterate ruffians are transfixed by its intricacies, though most would not recognize their own names translated into written symbols.

The handler imported with the beasts, Hi Jolly, is a Turk from the region outlying Damascus. His speech is somewhat mysterious and at times I must content myself with what meaning can be gleaned from his raised brows, though he communicates significantly better with the camels. He is short of stature, hirsute and corpulent with a sharply curved nose whose tip nearly touches his top lip and black heavy-lidded eyes, making him appear perpetually drowsy, though he is inordinately energetic for a Turk and a great enthusiast of midnight promenades beyond the fort walls. He is reputed a jokester, though his high spirits have been somewhat dampened by his determination to mourn our separation from that stale biscuit, Ned Beale.

Recently, the men held a roping contest (these rustlers can’t but lay eyes on an animal than they set about to determine how best to steal it. It is only the present lack of a profitable market for the beasts—whose utility in this terrain is yet unproven, but of which I am increasingly confident—that prevents these ruffians from such treasonous theft). Hi Jolly was the first to minister to the two broken arms of man who, having successfully landed a lasso around the scruff of a camel’s neck, was flung through the air and crashed against a fence post. All this to say I think you should find this Turk an entertaining dinner guest, although despite his limited verticality I fear he could alone consume two whole roasted chickens and have therefore abstained from issuing any invitation.

Observing the particular suitability of the camels to the desert clime, I am convinced that, if bred locally, they will soon and profitably become the preferred means not only of communication, replacing the Pony Express, but also of transporting freight. They have the possibility of filling a second stomach with as many as forty gallons and may thereby pass as much as a month between waterings. A well-maintained beast may live fifty serviceable years, twice the lifespan of a mule. The males are particularly interested in the females, to the point of giving one of our rustlers a terrible fright, as riding a female specimen he was nearly flattened by a male’s precipitous determination to climb atop her. It would be most shrewd of us to invest the balance of your inheritance, my dearheart, in a camel-breeding enterprise.

All projects for the enlargement of our present house should be delayed until I have liberty to develop my plans further, being that there has also recently come into my possession by cunning negotiation an aged document of national significance whose sale should procure for us a domain of a grander scale entirely. It would be imprudent for me to write of this further, but suffice to say its value is self-evident, the seller having traded it against a set of a riding clothes and a second-rate hat. Such is the desperation of a man in need.

Finally, I am somewhat troubled currently, having taken into service a boy aged fifteen to replace the man broken in the roping incident. The youth, a certain Jericho Larson, was orphaned by malarial fever in the region of Richmond two summers past. I could not but feel pity for a fellow Virginian, although I suspect he may have been engaged in dubiousness (there is talk of a boy of his description pursued for petty forgery and mining of the miners in the area of Santa Fe). Despite numerous attempts, the boy still fails to master the jolting movements of our mounts. I believe him fearful, given his smooth face, on which not a single whisker yet grows. He is the last to experience this difficulty and has thus far prevented the start of our expedition. Many a restless night have I spent searching out some means of curing the boy’s hesitancy. (Additionally, the Commander of the Fort is reluctant to part with us and has sworn to bar the egress, so attached has he grown to my refined company—the only other man of any education hereabouts being the bogus entomologist Dr. Dung Beetle, book at his armpit as though it has grown there, who spends his days prospecting under guise of “science”).

Forgive me if I offend you with such coarse talk of animal husbandry. I mean only to demonstrate how lucrative a proposition I consider camelry. Your delicate and civilizing touch is desperately and longingly missed on this day of Valentine love.

Mr. Silas Reeves, Private Secretary to Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, United States Department of War, to Lieutenant Erastus Snow, Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory, Feb. 2nd, 1857

The Secretary thanks you for your letter and again requests that you remain in Ft. Defiance until further notice. He expresses particular curiosity regarding the large, redheaded specimen you mentioned and would be glad to receive a likeness of the beast if such a man can be found in that inhospitable land as can accurately render one.

Jolene Larson, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to Mrs. Emily Larson, Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, Feb 17th, 1857

Mama, I went to claim Father at the gaol, with the candlesticks as payment, as you sent me. Well, finding him just then in process of liberation, he took from me the candlesticks, pawned them against a new set of boots and signed on to an expedition of camel riders. I, seeing no other way, followed. Having disguised myself as a boy, and knowing that I could reveal his counterfeits (he’s already sold one Declaration to the expedition’s leader, a wig-wearer called Snow), he had no choice but to vouch for me.

We are staking claim to the Western Mountains, where a man has but to wash his face in the river and pan an ounce of gold from his whiskers (pray I can soon grow some). I’ll return as soon as I get from Father enough to buy the land the Lujans propose to sell us. Don’t send word—we’ll soon be leaving and I’ve pretended myself not only a boy, but orphaned. I’m sorry for the lie. If only I could grow a beard my problems would be lesser.

I’ve made a friend, a young traveling doctor. He collects the unknown beetles and gives them names; he has shown me one green as an emerald—without its legs it would make a fine brooch. The camels spit. If you’re not quick to dodge, they smack you with gobs of warmed lard. Tommy, if you’re the reading Mama this letter, please stop hocking phlegm and give her a kiss.

Lieutenant Erastus Snow, United States Army Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to Ms. Zinnia, c/o Madame Louise’s Parlor of Sweet Delights, Richmond, Virginia, March 1st, 1857

My sweet, succulent flower, the desert sun has faded your portrait so oft have I removed it from my breast pocket to gaze upon your fair visage, which guides me like a compass. Would I could return to you tomorrow, camel baron and collector of historical artifacts (I cannot say more, but trust that I have by cunning and good luck acquired a document whose vital role in the birth of our nation guarantees a price at auction that will enable me to bestow upon you ten thousand strands of pearls to replace the one so unjustly stolen from your loggings and remove you forever from the necessity of frequenting such coarse and unsavory company).

At this very moment Nicolette lies on her sickbed, expiring, and though my heart is heavy with the knowledge that she will soon pass from this world, I am invigorated by the vision of my triumphant return to Richmond to breakfast together on milky tea and your sweetest of sweet buns.

Lieutenant Erastus Snow, United States Army Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to Mrs. Nicolette Baldwin Snow, Charlottesville, Virginia, March 27th, 1857

I have taken your advice, my dearheart, and ordered the coward boy lashed to the object of his hesitancy, for, as you so wisely opine, the only means of conquering a fear is to confront it squarely. Leather-wrapped rawhide straps were employed for this purpose. Of course the boy begged to be let to try to ride again on his own—Dr. Bug-Brain has taken to coaching him through morning exercises in the yard, as though the boy’s courage were a muscle he might increase (the actual muscles of his arms remain as malleable as hardboiled eggs). I selected for this lesson the most fearsome creature in our calvary, a giant male specimen fifteen feet of stature. His coat is not the usual straw color, but rather tinged with red, as fiery as your sister’s hair before she began (most wisely in my view) to use the hair-blacking (please forgive the discourteous comparison, I am only trying to render an accurate depiction, the import of which you will shortly discover).

The boy securely bound, it was Hi Jolly’s idea to turn the animal loose in the stock corral, but I thought it more appropriate, knowing the rustlers to be restless and craving pursuit given their former profession, to drive the animal and unwilling rider into the wilderness. I therefore smacked the flank of the Red Beast and ordered the men to give chase. The Red Giant bolted and, being as I have said of unusually large stature, soon surpassed the pursuing riders, leaving behind a cloud of risen dust that coated the men as though confectioned, returning as they were on foot, having lost their mounts. The Commander of the Fort refuses to allow me to go out in search, on the grounds that I am very fairly complected, though the Red Giant would be easily tracked, his hoof-prints the size of China plates.

It is possible to see for fifty miles in all directions, the nearest thing to tree being the enormous pole cactus, which grows arms and, at dusk, may be taken at a distance for a man. We are prepared to set out, but for the beasts, and for the boy’s particular friend, the greasy snaggletooth Larson (no relation), who has appealed to the Commander of the Fort to delay us in the hope that the Red Beast may still return.

It is unlikely that the boy will have survived the elements unless he has found some way of loosing himself. Fortunately that beetle-hoarder Ricketts is gone on one of his “expeditions” or he would surely raise a fuss over losing his sole disciple. Pretending science out of what belongs smashed under a man’s boot, he should be strung up like the illegal prospector he is and his claim confiscated.

I have had to post a guard outside Hi Jolly’s sleeping quarters lest he make another attempt to abandon us and rejoin that crusty bread-heel Ned Beale.

I enclose here an additional letter to our Secretary of War, who has heard of the Red Beast and requests a likeness of it. Even before it vanished there was no man among this leathery band capable of such artistry. I am hopeful that you might lend your talents to the task and forward your result along with said letter to the Secretary. If your imagination requires further inspiration, perhaps you will visit our neighbor, the widower Franklin Hastings, who despite being such a terrible bore that even the hair on his head has deserted him, has access to the library at the University of Virginia, where he instructs.

Mr. Danforth Campbell, Private Secretary to Secretary of War, John Buchanan Floyd, United States Department of War, to Lieutenant Erastus Snow, Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory, May 28th, 1857

News has perhaps not yet reached the New Mexico Territory, but there has been an election, John Buchanan Floyd replacing Secretary Jefferson Davis, to whom you address your most recent letter. The new Secretary has no knowledge of the Snow Expedition you mention and must therefore decline both your request for additional camels and the lengthy accompanying list of desired supplies, including three barrels argan oil for the “nourishment and vitality of hair.” It is furthermore the Secretary’s view that the frivolous Camel Corps shall be promptly disbanded. As the early months of the Beale Expedition have demonstrated, the beasts’ feet are vulnerable to infestations of chiggers, rendering them unserviceable.

Your numerous proposals for future use reveal you to be a gentleman of significant imagination. However, as you will discover upon consulting any one of a number of reliable books, foremost among them George Perkins Marsh’s recent treatise: The Camel, his Organization, Habits and Uses, Considered with Reference to his Introduction into the United States, camels and dromedaries have but one stomach (you perhaps confuse them with that more readily identifiable animal, the cow?). The text I mention is held at the Library of Congress. I highly recommend it to you upon your next visit to the capital. The Library may also be useful in correcting a certain number of other erroneous assumptions, anatomical and otherwise.

Finally, regarding the “private” matter. The original Declaration of Independence has since 18 and 41 been on exhibit at the Patent Office located at the intersection of Seventh and F Streets. You, like all members of the public, are encouraged to visit it there free of charge.

Lieutenant Erastus Snow, United States Army Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to Mrs. Nicolette Baldwin Snow, Charlottesville, Virginia, June 15th, 1857

The herbage is deadly, the terrain impassible—there is not a single plant that doesn’t stab, prick, or sting. What’s more, the area is infested with marauding bands of hostiles and their cunning swiftponies. What a shame to have lost the Red Beast. His height, you’ll recall, being near to twenty feet, he might have warded off the hostiles by his sheer size. The only happy news of late is that dung-loving beetle doctor Ricketts has still not yet returned. The men assume he has fallen victim to one of his beloved scorpions, though more likely his shaft collapsed and buried both man and fortune. The Commander of the Fort has begun to regard me crookedly and insists we remain still another month, though the weather grows hotter by the day.

The traitor Hi Jolly has abandoned our post to rejoin that decrepit horny toad, Ned Beale.

I have received reply from the new Secretary refusing further support despite my recommendation that the Camel Corps be maintained in the case of an eventual war against the Mormons of Utah, although the Secretary recognizes me as a gentleman of significant imagination. Furthermore, he praises your high artistry in rendering the Red Beast. I thank you for your wifely assistance in this matter.

I have not yet conveyed the news to the men, as I had promised them another year of gainful employment, so confident was I in the future of our Corps. I fear for myself if I cannot find some way to compensate them.

I am glad that old bore Hastings’ dullness was not as fatal to you as it proved to his late wife. You do a good deed visiting him: he is an old man and prey, like all of us, to loneliness.

Lieutenant Erastus Snow, United States Army Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to Mrs. Nicolette Baldwin Snow, Charlottesville, Virginia, June 16th, 1857

Good news! The camels escaped last month have returned, all but the Red Giant. They were found this morning, a pack of shaggy humpbacked dogs, waiting outside the fort walls, a homing tendency that bodes well for our commercial enterprise which should suffer none of the usual losses of stock raids and broken fences. I confess, I could not have been more overjoyed to see them had they carried Bethlehem’s wise men on their backs.

I pacified old fleebag Larson with the promise of funds to convey to the boy’s mother, if she can be found (the idea of the Commander of the Fort’s wife, no doubt, in whose kitchen Larson is often found). As for the funds, might you not, dearheart, sell the set of pearls I offered you in the early days of my commission and convey the balance?

Lieutenant Erastus Snow, United States Army Camel Corps, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to Mrs. Nicolette Baldwin Snow, Charlottesville, Virginia, June 18th, 1857

Still no sign of the tied boy Jericho. His particular friend Larson has been seen lurking at the entrance to my quarters. No doubt he will request another search party, though it is clear to any fool the Red Beast is lost; it lives now only in your artful rendering.

The men are very ill disposed toward me. Might you expedite the money from the pearls immediately?

Jolene Larson, Yuma, New Mexico Territory to Mrs. Emily Larson, Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, Aug 1, 1857

Mama, the Pony Express man will arrive in the next weeks with these items: father’s purse containing sixty dollars in gold pieces; a gold pocket watch; six new and rare beetles (dead) for Tommy to start his collection. Take the watch to Cyrus Hamblin near the gaol, retrieve your candlesticks, and accept the rest in cash payment. I will write more soon.

Cornelius Miller, Commander, Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory to Secretary of War, John Buchanan Floyd, US Department of War, August 18th, 1857

Heretowith confirming, per orders: the scoundrel Snow lashed to recently returned red camel and driven off, to be dispatched by the elements (by popular vote), for numerous offenses, including: desertion, theft, disregarding the orders of a superior, unauthorized commissioning of men into armed service; remaining stock formerly abducted from Camp Verde, Texas released to range; confiscated items: wigs (2), parchment fac similes of United States Declaration of Independence (1); bottles of argon hair oil (16); Snow’s expedition (11 men) disbanded, (excepting Larson, kept on as cook’s assistant, at Mrs. Miller’s request). Sordid camel adventure: ended.

Mr. Jesse Allen, Sheriff, Apache County, Arizona Territory to Mr. Bradford Gunthrie, Editor, Phoenix Evening Gazette, June 3rd, 1883

In response to your recent article casting doubt upon the guilt of the recently hanged wife-killer, Robert Hamilton, it is true that what appeared to be a trail of cloven footprints roughly the diameter of a medium-sized cast iron cooking pan were discovered in the vicinity of the deceased June Hamilton, who was herself bloodily indented with these same imprints, to make it appear that some colossal devil had trampled her. It is also true that strands of red hair were collected from the surrounding thorn bushes, as if to implicate the murderous Red Ghost, who your article identifies as being marked by a white side-stripe, alleged to be the leg bones of the corpse still strapped there.

Although some wild descendents of the Beale Expedition are known to wander our deserts, no reliable sighting of this mythological giant has been reported and his existence is most accurately judged entirely folkloric. The red hairs in question were in fact proven most scientifically to be of corresponding length, texture and pigment to those of the youngest Hamilton boy, Elijah. An iron cooking pan, of sufficient heft as to be fatally wielded, was furthermore discovered in the kitchen, newly cleaned and oiled although Robert Hamilton claimed his wife had been frying eggs in it at the time she ventured inexplicably from the house to be brutally attacked and trampled. Furthermore, given that the lonely ranch remains vulnerable to renegade attacks, it is unlikely she would venture such a distance from the house alone without a weapon.

It is true that the children, numbering five, aged four months to eight years, corroborate the attack and describe the mythic beast (a common personage in local tall tales) convincingly. However, their testimonies cannot be given serious credence given their young ages and the associated trauma of witnessing their father dispatch their mother with a pan formerly used to fry their breakfast. Having observed such violence, it is only natural that they proclaim as absolute truth any fabrication of their father’s invention, for fear of meeting a similar end. The children are now in the care of their aunt, sister of the hanged man, Mrs. Norma Hamilton. With time their true recollections may return, along with their taste for the shelled-fruits of Mrs. Hamilton’s chickens, which they are currently said to shriek at the sight of.

In light of this information, I believe you can only conclude upon the veracity of the domestic and human nature of the killing at the ranch at Eagle Creek. By your personal and unhealthy attachment to perpetuating the false myth of the Red Ghost, you risk occasioning an epidemic of wives disposed of for the reasonably economical investment of a medium-sized iron cooking pan and clever procurement of a few strands of reddish hair, readily available from any number of Soiled Doves as regularly service the prospectors on their visits to the saloons. Your paper, to remain reputable, must print a retraction of your winsome and exotic claim or risk permanent branding as the organ of an unrepentant fabulist.

Mr. Bradford Gunthrie, Editor, Phoenix Evening Gazette, to Mr. Jesse Allen, Sheriff, Clifton, Apache County, Arizona Territory, October 5th, 1883

It may interest you to know, as my reporters are readying the article, that an encampment of prospectors rear Clifton report being wakened by the thundering of hooves and barely managed to claw their way out before their tents were trampled by an enormous, thrashing beast whose warm breath shot like smoke from its nostrils. In the morning, these men reported finding the storied cloven footprints and strands of red hair clinging to the surrounding brittlebush. There are also tales of the Red Ghost devouring a grizzly bear (our investigation is ongoing—perhaps you or one of your deputies has knowledge of this incident?).

Additionally, a Mr. Leroy Amos, rancher along the Salt River, has been taken into custody by the sheriff there for shooting a man (in the leg) after said man accused him of untruthfulness. Mr. Amos claimed to have come across the Red Ghost while rounding up cows, the bones of a man still lashed to the creature’s back, in accordance with popular legend. He is said to have fired upon the Ghost, but the beast bolted up such a steep acclivity that he could not pursue.

Mr. Amos has a reputation as an honest man, unaccustomed to being disbelieved. I will travel to visit him myself, as it seems, despite your low opinion, the Red Ghost does in actuality wander our land. In the same jail, a man described as slight and greasy answering to the name of Larson taken into custody for the trading of white scalps affirms the existence of a beast escaped from an early and little known expedition led by one Lieutenant Erastus Snow.

Mr. Bradford Gunthrie, Editor, Phoenix Evening Gazette to Mrs. Nicolette Baldwin Snow, Charlottesville, Virginia, March 22nd, 1885

It is a considerable gratification to address this letter to you, having devoted several years of scrupulous investigation to discovering your present whereabouts. First let me warn: in the case attached, wrapped in a variegated woolen serape typical to our region, you will find the scalp of your beloved husband, the fallen Lieutenant Erastus Snow, who led an expedition across our territory some years past, pre-dating Beale.

What little flesh remains I believe you shall not recognize, but may you take comfort in the wisp of remaining hair, sun-bleached and coarse, but still firmly attached to the head, and give it a Christian burial. I apologize for the macabre nature of this parcel, but it is my hope that it will bring you some comfort to have possession over the thinking part of your husband.

Mr. Oliver Hastings, Charlottesville, Virginia to Mr. Bradford Gunthrie, Editor, Phoenix Evening Gazette, Sept. 7th, 1885

I return to you unopened your gruesome parcel. My mother’s first husband, the Lieutenant Erastus Snow, by his erratic behavior entrained his own premature demise when my mother was but nineteen. After some years mourning, my mother did succeed in marrying my late father, Franklin Hastings, a faithful admirer. My beloved father having recently succumbed to a long ailment, my mother is in no condition to confront the reckless lying husband of her youthful days. Please dispose of him as you see fit.

Post Script: My mother, in her better hours, speaks wistfully of a large gold Luther Goddard & Son fusee pocketwatch inscribed with the monogram EB (Edward Baldwin). This article, a heritage of my maternal grandfather whose death shortly preceded her ill-fated first marriage, was removed by Lt. Snow on his departure for the Western Territories. My mother’s spirits would be lifted by its restoration, as, in addition to its material worth, is attached great sentimental value.

Jolene Larson Ricketts, Tanque Verde, Arizona, notes for the Entomological Society of America, in anticipation of the forthcoming exhibition “Rare Beetles of the Sonoran Desert” at the World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois, November 18th, 1933.

A woman does not like to reveal all her secrets, but in the name of science, let me tell you a little something more about these particular specimens to be displayed for the first time for public viewing. As you know, they were part of the private collection of my late brother Thomas Larson, and were discovered, collected, and catalogued by Dr. Ricketts during his early days in the territory.

My husband was a quiet and surefooted man, a good tracker—he worked as a scout in his youth. Why, he could creep past any guard, man or dog, and slip your watch from its chain without so much as disturbing a mote of dust in the air. For the most part, he devoted his stealth to the reconnoitering of beetles, which explains how he succeeded in capturing and preserving these most rare examples:

Specimen 613: the Jericho beetle, whose hermaphroditic tendencies explain its continued resiliency;

Specimen 649: the camel beetle with its distinctive malodor (anyone who has had the olfactory misfortune to encounter a camel will recognize this smaller kin by its stench);

Specimen 703: the Hi Jolly, a nocturnal beetle observed to jig around in circles to confuse predators and slip away unnoticed;

Specimen 724: the Commander of the Fort (known familiarly as the “cuckold” beetle; the upper horn is borne on the pronotum of the thorax, the lower affixed to the top of the head. The larger horns are found on males, who use them for grappling at prime breeding sites);

Specimen 736: the Forgerer, known to interbreed with female Commander of the Forts, who are also, of course, blind. And, lastly;

Specimen 851: my personal favorite, the little known and long extinct Snow beetle, an albino rarity, hairy of leg and smooth of head, a detritus feeder thought to have subsisted largely off the dung of jackrabbits. Something of the Don Quijote of coleoptera, its extinction is likely due to its insistent overconfidence, charging predators even before being noticed by them.

Of course, these are only a few of the many species whose discovery is credited to Dr. Ricketts.

There was plenty to be found here in those early years. As for my role in my husband’s research, it’s true, people used to remark on my assisting him. In those days it wasn’t unusual for a woman to pour a kettle of boiling water down a scorpion tunnel and smash the poor dears as they floated out—but to preserve them in jars, well, that was eccentric.

Where did you find this wife of yours?
Oh, I cut her down off the back of a marauding camel, my husband used to tease.

I was never afraid of the creepy crawlies, though I am still no particular fan of snakes; I am ninety-four years old and this morning I took the head off a three-foot rattler with my garden spade, which I keep inside the porch door for that purpose. Frontier justice has always been swift. They like to sun themselves in the mornings—the vain devils; before long they’ll be tapping at the door, asking for a glass of lemonade. There was a time when people ate them—of course, chickens were hard to come by then. Precious few of us left who remember those days.

If you are ever in Tanque Verde, bring me a tin of molasses biscuits and I might tell you more. I wouldn’t say no to a half-pint of good malt, if that’s more to your taste. Knock first and stand back. A garden spade can do a great deal more damage to a good nose than most people realize.