WARNING: This is a historical fiction piece based on stories told to me by my grandmother, Hazel Low. She was in her twenties during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s and witnessed a jackrabbit roundup near her hometown of Stockton, Kansas.
This story will not be to everyone’s tastes.
“Alright, boys. Everybody…load up!”
It was blisterin’ hot, humid and windy as hell. Nobody said much. They hung onto the sides of the pickups with one hand and passed around canteens spiked with homemade, rotgut whiskey with the other. There were times when a man needed to dull his senses, whether or not it was legal.
Over five hundred farmers had shown up for the roundup that day. A good number, according to the county extension officer who was hoping to cull ten thousand jackrabbits in one afternoon. For weeks word had gone out to the surrounding counties and beyond and folks from all over Northwest Kansas had traveled to Trego County that day to be a part of a jackrabbit roundup.
Only a few men were excited about the task to be undertaken. Anyone who’d already witnessed a roundup knew what carnage they were expected to carry out over the next few hours but it had to be done. Locust, black widows, and now jackrabbits…the plagues kept coming, following on the heels of dust storms that stole the topsoil right off their land. Some farmers had lost faith in the land and moved out to California to pick vegetables with the migrant workers. It was a tough decision…abandoning the family farms that had been settled by their grandfathers and worked by their fathers but they’d just had enough. Enough drought, enough dust, enough infestations…
The pickup trucks rambled on across Rasmussen’s pasture towards Big Creek. It’d been dry for a year and a half but they’d still find plenty of jackrabbits hiding out in the underbrush. As the caravan slowed the men jumped off with bats, shovels, and axe handles in hand. They lined up in the sandy creek bed and started kicking and poking at the scrubbrush, flushing the hares up the embankment and out into the open. The pests bounded about erratically, stopping every now and then to sit back on their haunches, sniff the air and twitch their long ears back and forth as they got to know their new surroundings. The farmers walked behind them, getting just within reach of the jackrabbits before they’d hop off to a safe distance several feet away. They never ran too far or too fast…they weren’t scared of men anymore.
This was the way the great grey and white wave rolled over the prairie. Jackrabbits so thick, it seemed as if the land itself was moving. Herding them over miles of prairie, the farmers guided them to the corral and closed the gate behind them.
“How many you think we got?” the question was posed.
“Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of nine thousand, is my guess.”
The farmers went into the corral in shifts. With clubs swinging high above their heads, they crushed the jackrabbits’ skulls. Over and over, pounding them mercilessly into the dirt. Blood and gore splattering on their hands, clothes and faces, mixing with the dust in the air and pooling at their feet.
Carcasses piled up four and five rabbits deep, littering the ground so thickly the farmers were forced to step on the dead and dying bodies to get to the next victims. They could feel the hares squirming beneath their feet and worse yet, they could hear them screaming. It was an unnerving, chirping sound that didn’t stop until the last jackrabbit had died.
Afterwards the farmers brought out pitchforks and shovels and started pushing the bodies into piles. Dousing them with gasoline, they burned the jackrabbits. The smoke that came off the bonfires smelled of sweet meat and burned fur.
Either sickened by the spectacle or bored by the repetition of the process, the people who’d come out to watch began to drift away until they all eventually went back to their lives but they knew they’d remember those jackrabbit screams to their dying days.