JIM BRIDGER, the old frontier scout and trapper, used to spin some really tall tales about Indians, bears, and hair-raising adventures, but I believe he missed this one which an old uncle of mine used to tell me for a bedtime story.
Everyone thought old Uncle Jerry was crazy. He had a little place out on Killdugan Creek—a quarter section of grazing land—and all he had on it was a few milk cows, some chickens, and two old hide-racks that passed as horses. Uncle Jerry had a rickety little cabin on his land, and he lived there by himself—he and his cows, horses, and chickens.
When the big drought hit, many of the little farmers and ranchers went under. They were either forced out by the drought or sold out to the big ranchers, who bought the land for a song. And all the folks really thought Uncle Jerry had lost his mind when he refused to sell out to Jesse Bradford, who had one of the biggest spreads in the section. And Jess offered a fair price, too, considering the circumstances.
But Uncle Jerry just sat on his tumble-down front porch, playing his harmonica, shaking his head and saying, “Nope, I ain't goin’ to sell. This drought cain't last forever.”
Now, old Uncle Jerry was a harmonica playing fool. Nobody questioned his ability on the mouth organ. Whenever any of the folks gave a barn dance, Uncle Jerry was always asked to help provide the music. Hot or sweet, fast or slow, he could play any way you wanted.
Well, one hot afternoon in June, just before sundown, Uncle Jerry was sitting out on his porch serenading the chickens with his evening harmonica concert. He had just swung into “The Stars and Stripes Forever” when he happened to glance down at his feet—and there coiled up, with his big wicked head swaying to the music, was the biggest, blackest diamond-back rattlesnake Uncle Jerry ever laid eyes on. He swore later that it was seven feet long if it was an inch.
Well, Uncle Jerry nearly swallowed his harmonica, but he had sense enough to keep on blowing. He played every piece he knew, from “Turkey in the Straw” to the “Wedding March,” and when he ran out of pieces to play he started over again. But he noticed that the rattler kind of perked up, and swayed a little more when he played the “Stars and Stripes.” Pretty soon Jerry ran completely out of breath, so he put down his harmonica, and said, “Go ahead and bite me, you durned varmint. Damned if I'll entertain you any more.”
But the snake, just as if he was completely satisfied, shook his rattlers a little as if he were applauding, and crawled off.
After that, every afternoon when Uncle Jerry came out to play, that snake would appear just in time for the concert. The old boy became attached to the snake, and named him J. P. Sousa, after the composer of the snake's favorite tune. He enjoyed all the music, but he seemed to really get a kick out of the “Stars and Stripes.” He even learned to “rattle his rattlers” in time to the music, and thereafter many an enthusiastic duet was indulged in.
One afternoon J. P. Sousa failed to show up. Uncle Jerry tried to play, but his heart wasn't in it. It was just like an orchestra trying to play to an empty auditorium. Uncle Jerry hopefully kept an eye open for J. P., but finally gave him up for gone. After that, there were no more evening concerts.
The drought was finally broken with some good midsummer rains, just like Uncle Jerry said it would be. And the people began to wonder if he was quite as crazy as they thought he was. Killdugan Creek was full, and Jerry had one of the richest quarter sections of pasture land in the country.
One day Jess Bradford came out to look over Jerry's land. He offered a price that even Jerry himself hadn't dreamed of. But Jess had some new white-face heifers that he wanted to put out to graze on the good grass of Jerry's land, and he didn't mind paying a big price for it. So Uncle Jerry hitched his two old crowbait horses to his rickety buckboard and drove Jess over the pasture, showing him the best grazing and watering spots.
They were bouncing along, and as they neared a little hill, the sound of martial music came to their ears. It sounded a little familiar to Jerry, so he jerked his team to a halt, and scrambled out of the wagon, and started up the rise, as fast as his arthritic joints would allow.
When he finally reached the top, a strange sight met his eyes. On top of the hill was a big, flat rock. And on this rock were twenty-eight big diamond-back rattlers, grouped in a circle. In the center, his head waving proudly, and his rattles beating out the time just a little louder than the rest, was old J. P. Sousa, leading his musicians in a loud, but positive rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”