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When I was a little boy my father told me the way to catch a bird was to put salt on its tail. If you do that, he assured me, you can reach right out and pick it up. I looked to my mother for confirmation, and she said something like, “I suppose that’s true.”

They armed me with a salt shaker and I spent the afternoon trying to get close enough to a bird to salt its tail. Not until my brothers came home from school and started laughing at me did I get the joke.

The tradition of playing tricks on the naive runs deep in the history of the northern Rockies. The famous Yellowstone explorer, N.P. Langford, told this story in his account of  traveling with the second Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone Park in 1872.

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Among our own hunters was a trapper named Shep Medary—a lively, roystering mountaineer, who liked nothing better than to get a joke upon any unfortunate “pilgrim” or ” tender foot ” who was verdant enough to confide in his stories of mountain life.

“What a night!” said Shep, as the moon rose broad and clear—”what a glorious night for drivin’ snipe!”

Here was something new. Two of our young men were eager to learn all about the mystery.

“Driving snipe! what’s that, Shep? Tell us about it.”

“Did ye never hear?” replied Shep, with a face expressive of wonder at their ignorance. “Why, it’s as old as the mountains, I guess; we always choose such weather as this for drivin’ snipe. The snipe are fat now, and they drive better, and they’re better eatin’ too. I tell you, a breakfast of snipe, broiled on the buffalo chips, is not bad to take, is it, Dick?”

Beaver Dick, who had just arrived in camp, thus appealed to, growled an assent to the proposition contained in Shep’s question; and the boys, more anxious than ever, pressed Shep for an explanation.

“Maybe,” said one of them, “maybe we can drive the snipe tonight and get a mess for breakfast: what have we got to do, Shep?”

“Oh well,” responded Shep, “if you’re so plaguey ignorant, I’m afeard you won’t do. Howsomever, you can try. You boys get a couple of them gunny-sacks and candles, and we’ll go out and start ’em up.”

Elated with the idea of having a mess of snipe for breakfast, the two young men, under Shep’s direction, each equipped with a gunnysack and candle, followed him out upon the plain, half a mile from camp, accompanied by some half-dozen members of our party. The spot was chosen because of its proximity to a marsh which was supposed to be filled with snipe. In reality it was the swarming place for mosquitoes.

“Now,” said Shep, stationing the boys about ten feet apart, “open your sacks, be sure and keep the mouths of ’em wide open, and after we leave you, light your candles and hold ’em well into the sack, so that the snipe can see, and the rest of us will drive ’em up. It may take a little spell to get ’em started, but if you wait patiently they’ll come.”

With this assurance the snipe-drivers left them and returned immediately to camp.

“I’ve got a couple of green ‘uns out there,” said Shep with a sly wink. “They’ll wait some time for the snipe to come up, I reckon.”

The boys followed directions—the sacks were held wide open, the candles kept in place. There they stood, the easy prey of the remorseless mosquitoes. An hour passed away, and yet from the ridge above the camp the light of the candles could be seen across the plain. Shep now stole quietly out of camp, and, making a long circuit, came up behind the victims and, raising a war-whoop, fired his pistol in the air.

The boys dropped their sacks and started on a two-forty pace for camp, coming in amid the laughter and shouts of their companions.

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— Excerpt from N. P. Langford, “The Ascent of Mount Hayden,” Scribner’s Monthly (June 1873) 6(3)129-157.

— Illustration from the article.

— You can read a condensed version of Langford’s The Discovery of Yellowstone Park in my book, Adventures in Yellowstone.

— To see more stories by this author, click on “Langford” under the “Categories” button to the left.

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