I'm unsure whether this first story has acquired a title or not; if not, I have suggested "The Trophy." I cannot remember where or even when I first heard it (as recounted below). It was not included in Lawrence Klauber's 1956 chapter-length collection of rattlesnake lore in his massive two-volume Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, so it likely dates from at least the early 1950's. 1
A rancher in south Texas enters his home one evening and proceeds to tell his wife that he has just killed the "biggest damned rattlesnake" he had ever seen just outside of the gate to the front yard. His wife, busy setting the table for supper inquires whether he removed the rattles. He turns to take care of the task, but his wife implores him to wait until after supper.
By the time the meal is finished it has grown dark outside. The rancher unsheathes his buck knife, walks out to the front gate in the darkness. He can barely make out the body of the enormous pit viper, but he presses the tail against the ground and saws off the rattles. While cutting, he feels some resistance from the snake's body and attributes it to having the head caught in a bush. In the kitchen he places the rattle string on a piece of paper and counts eighteen segments, all about the same width, indicating an older, fully grown snake.
The next morning the rancher and his wife walk out to the front gate to examine and dispose of the carcass. What they see takes them aback: a huge rattlesnake, obviously dead, but with an intact string of rattles!
J. Frank Dobie's posthumously published 1965 work, Rattlesnakes, is the earliest published reference I have found for it and his version, attributed to a correspondent from Houston, differs somewhat from the version I first heard. At any rate, it is one of the few pieces of rattlesnake folklore that applies specifically (and only) to rattlesnakes, since the story revolves around that unique characteristic, the rattle itself.
Dobie's (1965) version follows, from his first chapter entitled "Rattlesnake Lore":
Edward T. Soph, of Houston, has sent me what I suspect is a well-traveled anecdote of another big snake.
One evening about dusk a farmer walked into his kitchen and told his wife he had just killed the biggest rattler he'd ever seen.
"Did you cut off the rattles?" she asked.
"No, I'll get them after supper."
After eating, the farmer walked out in pitch darkness, went to the spot where he'd left the dead snake, heard the slight quivering of the rattles, got hold of some of them and hacked off with his knife what he supposed was the entire string. Back in the kitchen, he and his wife counted eighteen rattles.
The next morning he went to carry the dead snake off and found that it still had enough rattles to make a noise. (Dobie, J. Frank. 1965. Rattlesnakes, p. 7)
The newer version of the story unambiguously suggests that the rancher had removed the rattles from a different -- and still living -- snake, rather than the one he had killed, and had been very lucky to survive the incident unharmed. Dobie's story implies as much, but seems to equivocate: was it the same snake but with an incredibly long (>18) string of rattles, or was it a different, living snake that the rattles were taken from.
Herpetologists are remarkably uninterested in the length of a string of rattles; if the rattle is composed of equal-sized segments, rather than tapering down toward a button, it tells him only that the snake is a fully adult specimen, likely more than three or four years old. Shorter, tapering strings are much more informative about the probable age of the snake.
1 This chapter in the 1972 edition of Klauber's Rattlesnakes was not revised nor was it in the most recent edition (1997), which is basically a reprint of the 1972 edition.