A Texas Rattlesnake Tale
By Fred Hudson, Austin, Texas
No creature in the South Texas brush country is more terrifying than the Western Diamondback rattler. It shares this semi-desert place with javelins, deer, pumas, coyotes, wild razorbacks, a few jackasses, and any number of scary insects, like scorpions and spiders. A half century later those gray/white/black scales patterned like some Native American wampum still haunt my dreams.
Where I lived in Southwest Live Oak County, rattlers tried to kill us and we tried to kill them before they did. Now, I’ve no thirst for killing, even something as vile and evil looking as a rattlesnake. But, I remember when I did, and one day, particularly, when I almost killed us both.
One weekend afternoon when I was fifteen, I went over to my Granny’s house to go fishing. Our nearest neighbor had an earth tank to water cattle that was full of fish. It wasn’t far behind Granny’s house. He let us fish in it. I stopped at Granny’s and ate a slice of lemon meringue pie; she asked me to haul a wash tub of tin cans down the dirt road to an abandoned farm house and dump it into a cistern we were filling in.
In that part of Live Oak County we couldn’t get good well water, so we caught rain from the roofs and channeled it into cisterns for drinking. A cistern was a deep, circular hole dug into the earth and lined with concrete to hold rain water. A wooden top kept the water cool and the rats from using it for a swimming hole. When a cistern was no longer needed, it became a receptacle for trash.
The old homestead was no longer needed, so to turn the place back to be part of the field we tore down the house, the barn, and the outdoor toilet. We hauled the lumber and roofing tin away to be used on other buildings. The old chicken coop and cow lot fences we tore down and put them into one of the cisterns, then plowed up the old yard.
I chunked the tub of tin cans in the back of the pickup, but instead of heading over to the old homestead to dump the tub, I went fishing first. I didn’t catch any fish, but I took the first swim of the year. The sun was hot enough for mid-March to keep the water from being intolerably cold. The swim was invigorating, so by the time I returned to the old homestead to dump the cans I was feeling cocky and sort of dancing around.
I jerked the tub from the bed of the pickup truck and went to swinging it round and round like a discus thrower or some ballet guy as I carefully tip-toed toward the cistern through a field of scattered debris. As I neared the cistern opening to dump the cans, I heard, saw, and felt the snake all at the same time. His head grabbed at my ankle like a grasping hand. I jerked back kicking its head away from me. One of its two-inch fangs seemed stuck in my pants. He recoiled next to the cistern top waiting for me to come back at him.
I thought the rattler bit me, but I didn’t really know. Shocked because I was afraid maybe it had stuck his fangs in my ankle, and I just couldn’t feel it. I don’t remember even looking at him again, but I remember he was at least six feet long and very thick. His head was the size of my fist, and I had hammy hands. I checked where the fangs caught the rolled-up blue jeans cuff. It was wet. I jumped in the truck and headed back to Granny’s house as fast as the old ’57 GMC could go.
My two brothers-in-law were perched on the front porch drinking iced tea when I came to a screeching stop in front of the house.
The terraces in the fields needed shaping, which they were doing with Edgar’s motor-grader or maintainer. The government paid a portion of the work if the farmers followed the slope contours to keep the field from washing away. Once the brush was cleared from the sandy soil, nothing was left to keep it from forming gullies when it rained except the terraces. In the 1950s every farmer/rancher had at least one extra job. Edgar made terraces and rebuilt them after a “gully washer,” or big rain compromised the terrace. It’s tough work, which is the reason they were sipping tea on the front porch when I arrived.
Edgar and Jimmy eyeballed me as I bailed from the truck and ran upon the porch.
“Cut off my jeans,” I yelled. “Cut off my jeans! It was the most afraid I’d ever been. It felt like a sheet of ice was crawling up my chest and neck to my forehead.
“Calm down,” Edgar and Jimmy said almost in unison. “You’re acting all dramatic like some little girl. Now calm down and we’ll check you out.”
They eased off my boots and then held my jeans away from my legs while I slipped them off. Granny brought some soapy water to wash the poison from the jean cuff and my leg. After a while we all felt sure I wasn’t bitten. A careful examination of my jeans revealed no broken fang, so I put them back on.
By now I was mad. I decided to get that rattler and took the .22 rifle Granny kept in the closet for just such occasions and a box of shells. I was going to kill myself a snake. I didn’t have a rifle because my mama wouldn’t let one in the house. But Granny kept one. Mama wasn’t here, so I determined to make that snake pay for that near death encounter.
Still shaking, I slid into the truck and drove back down to the cistern. Just as soon as I stepped from the truck I heard that snake shaking its rattles. I slammed the door and shoved a bullet into the rifle’s chamber and pulled back the firing pin. I cautiously walked over to the mouth of the cistern and looked in. There it was, down about five feet among the cans, balled up fencing, and scrap metal. The rattler shot out its midnight-black tongue and seemed to be staring up at me with hateful yellow eyes. My daddy told me rattlers used their tongues to smell or taste the air and that they seek out the heat animals and people give off. They can see pretty good too with front-facing, predator eyes.
I aimed and shot, but the rattler dived into the trash head first leaving only his rattles visible. I loaded and shot a few more times, but the bullets failed to penetrate the cans, the tangles of barbed wire, and other stuff that had been thrown into the cistern.
When I realized I couldn’t get him with the rifle, I drove back to Granny’s. Still shaking and feeling pumped up, I sat on the porch with Granny and complained that the rattler had crawled down among the debris in the cistern where I couldn’t shoot it. I took more teasing from Edgar and Jimmy before they said there was still a gallon of gasoline in the five-gallon can they used for the starter motor on the maintainer. They told me when you pour gasoline down a hole it evaporates and pushes out most of the air. Whatever’s in the hole must come out or suffocate. That’s what they do at rattlesnake roundups. I grabbed the can, jumped back into the truck, and drove quickly to the cistern with a new plan for getting that snake.
The five-gallon can felt heavier than only one gallon, but I didn’t care. I wanted to kill that rattler for trying to kill me. There was more like four gallons of gasoline in the can and I poured it all into the cistern. I couldn’t see the snake, but I could hear it deep among the trash. The last few drops from the can I used to create a trail a few feet away from the cistern. Then I struck a match and dropped it.
As the match fell slowly toward the trail of gasoline, I stood facing the cistern and thought how that rattler would feel being cremated. I did not take into account that gasoline does more than just burn when it vaporizes around thousands of tin cans and mixes lethally with pockets of air.
To this day I do not remember what happened next. I just remember waking up lying in the soft plowed field with cans raining down on me. My cheek nicked by a piece of metal, I lay six or eight feet further from the cistern where I lit the gasoline fuse. Up to six feet of the cistern was completely blown out. My ears rang for the next several days.
So what happened to the rattlesnake?
I don’t know. I never saw it again.
Actually, what I do remember is Mama says she heard the explosion two miles away. She said it was the biggest explosion in South Texas since the oil well blowout on the old Mapes place.
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