By Paul “Many Rifles” Laster and Gerry “Lucky” Messmer
When Many Rifles and I left civilization behind for our fishing pack-in we had no idea of the danger and adventure that would befall us – a daring, period night time search and rescue operation in snake infested woods and high cliffs along the Guadalupe River.
On the evening of the escapade, we were lying under our oil cloth lean-to enjoying the good conversation and the twinkling of fireflies in the humid summer night. All the while kept company by my loyal dog Freckles. Freckles has been my loyal companion of over 15 years. He is always by my side and even though he is not an overly affectionate dog, he does stop by once a day to make sure I still love him. He is a dog’s dog, a fierce and loyal dog that has always protected me and my family. Little did I know that on this particular evening it would be Many Rifles and I who would protect him!
It must have been close to midnight when in the middle of conversation we heard the most horrible whining and yelping of an animal in mortal distress. A sound so disturbing that it made our blood curdle. We both slowly turned to the horrid sound – was it a dog? Another animal?
Sitting up and looking around us took note that Freckles was missing from camp. Being a spaniel, Freckles has always loved the water and no matter how hard you try to stop him, he always finds his way to the water. He will swim until he is exhausted only to rest up and swim some more. So, it was not uncharacteristic of Freckles to go on a walk-about in the middle of the night for a mid-night dip to cool off and get a drink of fresh water. That’s exactly what he had done. But this time, we were encamped on the cliffs above the water. What had happened?
My immediate fear was he was hurt and possibly under attack by hungry Indians, a pack of coyotes or worse, a seething band of wild hogs renting him apart! As I heard him yelp visions of white hair and blood everywhere went through my mind. My dog! Oh, no! The idea that my loyal friend was out there alone, under attack and without protection from his Master in his hour of need was disturbing, a haunting thought indeed!
However, one thought both Many Rifles and I had and voiced aloud was, “what a way to go out”. To die on the field of battle, outnumbered against a superior force in your twilight years is the thing legends are made of and Freckles was just that caliber of dog for it! I can just see the action, the biting, and the twisting and turning of the engagement as they fight to the ground, fight to the death. His jaws bloodied with the flesh of his impossible foe. We have all read about men fighting grizzlies and surviving and here was Freckles in the fight of his life against an unknown enemy!
What a fitting end to a life of adventure – would he win, could he win?
Many Rifles and I leapt from our place of rest and sprung into action right away. There was a quiet understanding in those woods. A silent passing between fellow brothers of the buckskin – if this dog was in danger – a loyal member of our merry band of scoundrels– what could we do but spring to his rescue?
Not knowing what dangers lay in wait we armed ourselves with our rifles, shooting bags and a candle lantern to make our way through the woods. Our response was fearless, knowing our loyal companion was in need we did not hesitate to put our lives into the fray to assist. I took the lead with the candle lantern studying the trail for sign of Freckles and doing my best in the weak, yellow light to lookout for copperheads, water moccasins, rattlesnakes, and other undesirables. We were in prime snake territory walking at night through tall grass where the strike of a snake would come fast and furious and out of view, we would never know what kind had bitten us. We would be bit before we could even respond with rifle-shot or fusil ball, but no sacrifice is too great when a brother is in need, even a brother of the canine variety!
Our meager trail was along the edge of a cliff with at least a 75 to 100 foot drop down to the river. Dirt and rocks slid off the edge as we worked our way closer to the sound of Freckles – each step a balancing act between the earth and the tricky shadows of the wary candlelight. Our moccasin clad feet just mere inches from the edge as we used our woodsman skills to navigate the terrain and close in on our distressed fellow.
After about 300 yards along the cliff the yelping stopped. Had Freckles been killed? Did he fall from the cliff or had hogs or coyotes devoured him in a feeding frenzy after what would have been an incredible fight? We did not know, yet we kept moving forward relentless in our search.
Determined to rescue him or exact revenge on the nameless foe, we continued down the path until we slowly descended down to the inky black water. Along the river an encounter with a poisonous snake became just as likely as a hog or coyote.
If he had he been bitten it would explain the horrible yelping followed by the subdued muffled sounds and finally the silence as the poison over took his body for a grotesque demise in the dark of night along the Guadalupe River. As we reached the water we looked up and down stream under the light of the moon and did not see any movement or the sodden lump of a lifeless carcass floating in the water. Were we too late? Would the Guadalupe be forever haunted by Freckles the fearless companion that died in a brutal engagement or was he still out there? Was there still time?
Then, hope. After several minutes of searching the waterline we heard another yelp to the west and looking up the shadowy, rising wall of the cliff we could see his white outline silhouetted in the dark half way up – held fast upon a ledge. Miraculously, Freckles looked to be uninjured. He was secured into a very precarious and dangerous position above the river. It looked as though he took a wrong turn in the dark of the night and had perhaps fallen down the side of the cliff.
Being of higher intelligence than most dogs and an experienced woods dog, his yelp was the canine equivalent of firing three shots in the air, a call for aid by his loyal companions, Lucky and Many Rifles, who responded with lightning speed and deft skills in the dark of night to rescue their friend and companion.
The end of the journey to get to Freckles was every bit as dangerous as its introduction. He was stranded on a very small game trail 50 feet above the river in thick perilous grass with unknown dangers. At that point Many Rifles held the lantern for as much light as he could give me as I inched my way down the trail to meet Freckles. It was a dangerous climb down to his location on the ravine.
Eventually I was out of the reach of the faint candle light and moving by feeling the ground with my feet and hands. As I closed in on Freckles he moved slowly and carefully towards me allowing me to grab a tight hold on him to keep him from falling off the edge. As I did so, I realized that any moment, with one wrong step we would both plunge to the bottom, split open on the rocks and far from Many Rifles. Worse yet, the potential strike of a snake could come rapidly in the darkness – the fear of a quick bite to my neck or extremities tempered my movement as I crawled down.
Upon retrieval, I checked him over and to my very great relief, he was without sign of injury. He was, of course, soaking wet from his swim in the river and looked very frightened as he himself knew the dangers of the woods and what an ugly end he might have met! I was able to secure him under one arm and crawling back toward the faint glow of the candle lantern I worked my way back up until I could I hand him to Many Rifles while I hoisted myself to the top of the cliff.
Once secured at the cliff top trail, Freckles gave himself the once-over to ensure he was not injured. With the pride and loyalty of a faithful friend, he took the lead on the trail and led us back to camp with his keen nose and sure footed ability. To show his appreciation at his nocturnal rescue, getting us safely back to camp was his way of thanking us for what we had done and risked.
At camp all three of us sat, rested and enjoyed some jalapeño jerky and a drink of cool water. We were comforted with the peace of mind knowing that we all had returned safely and victorious, and that Many Rifles and I had come to the rescue of our faithful friend, who now in his twilight years, had earned his camp name, “Cliff Dweller”.