The Red Ghost

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The legend about water storage in the hump was imported with the camels from their Asian homes. Apparently Beale accepted it, too, but he and the Asian camel owners did not permit that belief to overrule their common sense. Their camels were of great value to them, and they knew from experience that even when the humps were big and firm the animals sometimes still needed water. Beale learned this through observation. His camels could go much longer than mules without water and on occasion would refuse it when offered, but at other times, even though their humps were in fine shape, they drank deeply.

The hump legend, or the alternative one that a camel stores water in one of its three stomachs, still is widely accepted. The latter is cited as fact in at least one recent and generally authoritative work on natural history. Only in the last decade have two young researchers in comparative physiology, Drs. Knut and Bodil Schmidt-Nielsen, a husband-and-wife team, finally uncovered the truth. The camel’s hump is fat and contains no extra moisture, and the supposed water in the little sacs lining one of its stomachs is digestive fluid. The true reasons for the camel’s abil… ity to go without drinking for an unusual period under certain conditions are two: its body temperature can T vary widely, and it can tolerate great dehydration.

In hot weather and under exertion, most mammals must lose moisture via perspiration in order to keep their body temperatures within a certain range. Evaporation of sweat has a cooling effect. A human being, for instance, functions properly only when his body stays within about one degree of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When outside temperature pushes it toward the upper limit, he perspires faster and loses more moisture to counteract the rise. A camel, on the other hand, instead of sweating to prevent a rise in its body’s temperature simply absorbs heat during the day and radiates it at night. Its temperature varies from 93 degrees in the predawn coolness to 104 degrees in midafternoon.

It still may have to sweat to some degree, though at a far slower rate than most other animals, in order to stay within the upper limit. If it carries heavy burdens during the heat of the day, it may lose sizable amounts of moisture. A man can stand losing water amounting to only about ten per cent of his body weight. A camel can lose water amounting to more than thirty per cent of its body weight without much accompanying loss of strength.

It is because it is adapted in these ways to desert life that the camel is able to carry heavy loads for as long as four days without water, as Beale accurately observed. Given lush, moist pasturage and comparatively cool weather, the animal has been known to go as long as four months without a drink, being able to obtain all the necessary water from the grass. But under the conditions in which they worked in Nevada, four days probably was near the limit. Pushed beyond that, some of the Bactrians fought wildly for their lives and were shot; others plodded stoically on until they collapsed and died.

With the death of the Bactrians, the dromedaries auctioned off by the Quartermaster at Benicia Arsenal in California and a few others that previously had strayed or been driven from army posts were the only remnants of the experiment still in Union territory. (Another group of the animals somehow survived the war behind Confederate lines in Texas but was quickly scattered afterwards among circuses and zoos.) The man who bought those auctioned at Benicia, Samuel McLeneghan, hired the little Arab, Hi Jolly, to help drive the animals to Nevada and tried to put them to the salt-hauling the Bactrians had been doing, but the freighters who had regained the contract for the work wanted no more camel competition. At their behest the state legislature outlawed the use of camels on public roads on the grounds that they frightened horses and mules. McLeneghan and Hi Jolly drove the animals back south to Yuma in the Arizona Territory where McLeneghan disappeared, leaving them on Hi Jolly’s hands. He managed to eke out a living for a while by using the camels to haul water out along the driest stretches of the wagon road where he could sell it to thirsty travelers, but he, too, gave up sometime in the late i86o’s and turned the animals loose.

Thereafter, the more fortunate of the camels were on their own. Since they were the product of several thousand years of domestication, being left to fend for themselves in the desert was a hard fate, but it was far better than what happened to those that occasionally were recaptured. Every now and then a group of prospectors or cowhands would run across a camel. In most cases they simply used it for target practice. Sometimes an enterprising freighter would make an abortive attempt to put a few of the beasts back to work. But inevitably, some of the animals fell into the hands of sadists who found more imaginative uses for them.

This was the apparent fate of the one which came to be known as the Red Ghost. It seems the only possible explanation of the burden it bore on its back. In the early days of the Ghost’s notoriety, it was generally believed that the corpse was that of a traveler who had tied himself there as he grew weak from thirst, hoping that the camel would take him to water. But when it ultimately became possible to examine the animal, it was found that the rawhide strips which had held the burden in place could not have been tied the way they were by the man who was that burden.

“The only question,” editorialized the Mohave County Miner , “is whether the man was tied on for revenge or merely as an ugly piece of humor by someone who had a camel and a corpse for which he had no use.”