When my wife called my name her voice had a thinness to it, a slight quiver that caused me to turn, spilling a scoop of dog food outside of the bowl. The dogs should have noticed too. They are supposed to be specially attuned to things like that, having evolved for so long in human company. I’ve watched sheepherders give complicated directions to their dogs with a mere glance. But this afternoon, while the sun shone brightly and the wind lolled along strangely silent, the dogs were too distracted with the prospect of dinner to notice the unusual quality in her voice.
Her stride was determined and efficient. She took the straightest path to me, through rather than around the small patch of yucca that grows between the barn and our short backyard fence. Did the horses get into something? I wondered. Once the older one, stamping impatiently for his feed, got his front left leg caught between two bottom rungs of stock panel. The panels separate the barn into horse stalls in the front and a narrow, human-sized walkway in the back where we store containers of feed, an old manual push-mower, other miscellaneous tools, and a rabbit hutch. Did the black-and-white-spotted appaloosa corner our two-year-old again? He usually keeps to himself, but he can fall into a curmudgeonly mood and when this happens the youngster’s playful nipping and incessant boundary pushing can elicit a swift kick. Was the two-year-old bruised or injured?
“You need to come now,” my wife said. “And bring the shovel!”
I left the dogs to sort out the spilled kibble amongst themselves. When I returned from the garage with a shovel, she turned to lead me back to the barn. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
She stopped. “Rattlesnake.”
“In the barn. It’s somewhere in the back by the rabbit hutch. I wasn’t able to get a good look at it.”
“How do you know it’s a rattler? It might be another bull snake?” Bull snakes are nonvenomous and quite nice to have around. They compete with rattlesnakes for food (small rodents), so the more bulls around, the fewer rattlers. A few weeks earlier, a bull snake had found its way into our back yard. The dogs barked hysterically, but kept their distance. The snake had coiled itself near an overturned rain barrel that I had been meaning to right for a few weeks. It beat its tail against the ground in an attempt to imitate the sound of its deadlier cousin. My wife took pictures of it with a zoom lens because she thought its markings were beautiful. When she had finished, I sprayed it with a water hose and it slithered away without further incident.
“I heard it,” my wife said.
“But bull snakes-”
“This was different.” Her voice held a certainty that told me I needn’t ask again. We hurried to the barn and I reached for the door. “Slowly, in case it moved,” she warned.
I twisted the handle, listened, then cracked open the door. Nothing jumped out at me, so I widened the opening and peeked inside. In a reversal of normal physics, its sound reached me before I could see it – an unmistakable rattle, like beads in a hollowed-out gourd maraca. The rattle reverberated off the barn’s metal siding. I immediately shut the door.
“Did you hear it?”
“Where is it?”
I shook my head.
“Well-” My wife motioned for me to reopen the door.
I opened the door slowly, creating just enough space in which to stick my head. That sound again. My whole body shivered. Seconds later, my eyes adjusted to the dim light and spied the snake despite its best attempt at camouflage. Natural hues and patterns tend to stand out in a manmade environment. The snake stood, or coiled, right where she had said it would be. It was textbook rattlesnake, or like one you’d see on TV or cartoons. Its rattle was raised high, vibrating, attached to a perfect spring coiled body, a dark diamond pattern down the back. Its neck and head stood erect, eyes staring into the wire mesh walls of the bunny hutch, while its black tongue flicked in and out. The poor rabbit huddled, quivering in the corner of its hutch most opposite the snake. The hutch’s enclosed second floor would have provided more security, but the entrance ramp was only a few inches from the snake. I shut the barn door again.
“It’s huge,” I said. “What do we do?”
“You have to chop its head off with the shovel,” my wife said. She could tell I was skeptical. “Is there a way to get in behind it and strike at the base of its head?” She looked at my open toed sandals and added, “You should put on boots first.” The hard toe and high leather sides of cowboy boots offer some protection from snakebites. I’ve also heard that wrapping one’s jeans in duct tape can prevent a snake from latching on, but I’m not sure I believe it. I certainly didn’t want to test it.
“I don’t think I can reach it,” I said. “It’s between the bunny hutch and the old lawnmower. What about the gun?”
“Do you think you could hit it?”
“I don’t know, but I’d rather not get close enough to try the shovel.” She nodded.
I returned a few minutes later with my boots on, an old .22 revolver in one hand, and the shovel in the other. It felt strange to hold two such different tools. The shovel, I had taken from my great uncle’s gardening shed after he died. I used it, like he had, for planting or for digging fencepost starter holes in the pasture. Earlier that spring, I had employed it for a couple Chinese Pistache trees in the draw beside my house where they would receive the most runoff water and for Yellow-Rose-of-Texas rosebushes under my front window. Until now, the shovel had only known how to promote life. The revolver’s previous owner had been my wife’s late grandfather. It had a much different purpose. We kept it around to scare away coyotes in the off chance that a rabid or wayward male, after being kicked out of his pack, ever discovered my two female dogs in the backyard. Even this was only a precaution, likely caused by some lingering warning in my subconscious formed sometime during childhood after a viewing of Old Yeller. I had never before had reason to actually fire it.
“Wait,” my wife said as I reached for the door. “We need to move the horses farther away first.” They were unused to the sound of gunshots at such close range. Or, if I missed, the snake could just as easily try to escape in their direction as the open pasture. I put the gun down and helped her shoo the horses off their round hay bale in the paddock beside the barn. They left grudgingly and lingered by the gate closer than we would have liked. It is difficult to get a horse’s mind off fresh hay in the late summer once their pasture grass has begun to yellow.
Returning to the barn, I retrieved the gun and left the shovel near the door. I took one step inside and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. The snake had retreated from the hutch slightly, entwining itself in the blades of the old manual push-mower. It must have sensed that something was about to happen, but couldn’t bring itself to fully abandon the prospect of a plump rabbit dinner. I raised the gun with both hands, aimed, and prayed against a ricochet.
The shot was deafening. I nearly dropped the gun from the shock of it. I stepped out of the barn and saw my wife with her hands over her ears. “Did you get it?” she asked, or at least that’s what her lips motioned. In my haste to get away I hadn’t thought to look if I’d actually hit my target. I shrugged and a fit of nervous laughter overtook us both. I stepped back inside just in time to see the snake slither around the back of the rabbit hutch and out a narrow open space between the dirt floor and the wall.
“Grab the shovel!” I said, hurrying around the barn in pursuit. “It’s going out the back.”
“Did you hit it?” she asked, following me.
A line of old wooden railroad crossties and knee high weeds butt against the back of our barn – the perfect hiding place for a snake. When I reached the back, I saw the snake’s rattle disappear in the brush. I stood for a moment, unsure what to do next. The thrill of shooting a gun and of this brief chase had left my senses tingling. I scanned the scene for signs of movement, ready to fire again. Though freed from the confines of the barn, the snake seemed to know it was not yet out of danger. It remained absolutely still in its hiding place. Adrenaline had given me a bloated sense of invulnerability, so I handed the gun to my wife, trading it for the shovel. If I poked around in there perhaps I could get the snake to reveal itself.
If it had been a garter or bull snake, or really anything nonvenomous, the chase could have ended here. I could have taken a deep breath to calm myself, gone back inside to reassure the rabbit, and then returned to finish feeding the dogs. But this was a rattlesnake and I knew that simply scaring it off would not suffice. If the snake could get into the barn, it could make its way into the backyard.
Though it represented a clear danger to my rabbit and dogs, rattlesnake venom is not always powerful enough to bring down a larger animal such as a horse. A bite on the leg will cause severe swelling and a limp, but the horse will likely recover – especially if an antivenin is administered within twenty-four hours. Of course, the swelling could cut off blood supply to the hoof; that would be crippling – a death sentence for a horse. And a bite in just the right place could prove more immediately fatal. A bite on the nose can inflame the nostrils to such an extent that they close and breathing becomes impossible. The horse will suffocate.
Unfortunately, the snake’s characteristic rattling, rather than warning off a horse, may actually draw it nearer. Horses are naturally curious and, as grazing animals, keep their muzzles close to the ground most of the day. My two-year-old gelding noses any new thing he can find. He has pulled pliers out of my back pocket when I’m mending fences. He loves to playfully flip around the water hose with his lips when I fill his trough. A new kind of rattling hose slithering around the paddock would be irresistible to his young, curious mind.
I jabbed the shovel twice into the overgrown grass to no visible effect. At my third strike, further from the back corner of the barn, the grass shook and I heard that unmistakable rattling. I caught a flash of scaled skin reflecting the late afternoon light as the snake attempted to reposition itself closer to the crossties. I dropped the shovel and reached for the gun. Hastily aiming, I fired. The blast, not as reverberating loud this time, still surprised me. I lowered the gun and waited. Nothing. Then that rattling again. I sighed. Either this snake was bullet proof or my aim was defective. I handed the gun back to my wife.
“I can’t even see it,” she protested.
“I know,” I said.
I picked up the shovel. “I guess just swing around with the shovel until I hit it or it comes out into the open. Here,” I said, repositioning myself so that I was not directly between her line of sight and the snake. “I’ll try and make it go that way.” I took a step or two closer to the brush and then on second thought, pulled back. I gripped the shovel’s stalk and raised its head above my own. Repeatedly, I swung it down like an ax while my wife stood ready with the gun. I sensed movement in the weeds, but the snake remained too well hidden to get a clear shot.
In one final bat breaking home run swing, I cracked the shovel in two. The snake, it turns out, had also broken. It made its way to the edge of the brush, slithering and coiling madly. The wound was visible though – a deep, red gash in its midsection.
“You need to cut off its head,” my wife said.
She stood watch while I retrieved our narrow sharpshooter shovel – normally used for small plants or precise digging. I stepped apprehensively toward the writhing rope of scaled muscle and took aim. The shovel landed just behind its head. I stomped on the blade to finally sever that deadly connection. I took a deep breath, exhausted.
“That’s the biggest snake I’ve ever seen!” my wife said. Now that it was out in the open, we could see the rattler’s full bulk: about three inches at its thickest and just over four feet long. With my phone, she snapped a picture of me standing beside it. “Do you feel strong?” she asked me shakily.
It was a simple question, not even a question; more an acknowledgement of the danger we had overcome. Still, it caught me off-guard. Strength? Adrenaline still filled my veins, making my head dizzy and my hands tremble, but I could feel it beginning to sour. The thrill too had passed. At that exact moment, I felt more sick than strong. I knew that what I had done seemed like the strong, masculine thing to do. I had shot a gun. I had killed something. I had protected my family. But I didn’t feel strong. I felt ashamed. The snake’s death had been messy. I saw the red, meaty gash and wanted to cover over it. I looked at the picture we had taken, but I couldn’t bring myself to push the upload button.
The rattler had to die. I told myself I hadn’t had a choice. It had been in my barn, between the horse feeder and the rabbit hutch. It had been only yards from my backyard, from my backdoor. It couldn’t be allowed to leave and possibly return at the next rain. I had felt strong swinging the shovel; yet now, reaching to pick up its splintered shaft and blood stained tip, I felt broken myself. I felt weak that killing the snake was all I was able to do. I wished I could make it not happen – fly really fast counter clockwise around the earth and turn back time; or shoot webbing out of my wrists, sticking the snake in place until I had time to think of a better solution. But the rabbit had been shaking with sweat and the horses had been stamping only a few feet from danger, wondering why their dinner was taking so long, and all I had had on hand was a shovel and an old .22 pistol.
Still keeping some distance, I leaned in to look at the snake’s golden eyes. Though they held no more life in them, they still had the strength to threaten mine. Rattlesnakes can bite long after they’ve been killed – savage nerves unaware or unwilling to die, still executing their reptilian instinct. I’m not sure what I was looking for there. The narrow irises and upturned eyebrows that slanted inward toward the nose in a permanent scalely scowl gave it the look of a predator – a villain. Those eyes made it hard to ask for forgiveness.
Once the snake’s body stopped moving, a good twenty minutes later, I dug a small but deep hole. I carried its head carefully in the cup of the sharpshooter shovel and deposited it. I removed the body from where it lay behind the barn and tried to cover any blood stains with loose dirt. I didn’t want to attract coyotes or scare the horses from their shelter. Later, my wife and I lifted the rabbit hutch on top of an old card table. The rabbit, still trembling and skittish, seemed to appreciate the greater safety of her new high-rise.
I went outside the next afternoon at feeding time to the rapid barking of my dogs – a second snake in as many days. I’m not sure if the sight of its coiled body ready to strike or the sound of its maraca rattle registered first. Without a second thought, or even a complete first, I retreated to the garage. Mechanically, I grabbed the shovel and walked up behind the rattlesnake. It was too preoccupied with the dogs on the other side of the wire grid fence to notice me. I raised the shovel with both hands, aimed, and struck the snake at the base of its head. The force of the blow pinned it to the earth. I placed the sole of my boot on the shovel’s head and stomped down.