Jacob came around the bend with Spider beside him and saw the skeletal home of the snake hunter peering through trees, trees whose gnarled branches had grown bent around it like the arms of frozen octopi. The house was ancient. It had been cobbled together from scrap lumber and corrugated tin by five generations of Dawes'. It sat on posts and leaned like a drunken man. When Jacob stepped onto the porch it made noises like a ship. Baxter said the house was alive. The front door was always open and Jacob could smell bacon and coffee, which made his stomach gurgle. He stepped inside to the sound of a gospel radio show. Baxter came out from the back room bare-chested and pointed to a chair. He was a man whose face showed the harshness of mountain living, with deeply creased skin, skin like weathered wood and elephant hide. His eyes sat far back in his skull but they were crowned with thick salt and pepper eyebrows that swooped to blend in with his wild hair. His hair, brittle and silver like steel wool, stood up, like it was trying to escape from his scalp.
"Sit," he said and Jacob sat on an empty lard bucket turned upside down. The walls were covered in old newspaper which he liked to read while waiting for Baxter.
"Eat," said Baxter and he slid a dirty plate under the boy's face. The boy hesitated to eat from such a plate but the food smelled good. Fried eggs, slab bacon, a biscuit and gravy. Baxter sat and poured thick coffee into the tin cup and slid it towards the boy. He stared at him and winced at the wound on his face.
"He got you good," he said. Jacob just ate.
"A real devil that one was. Found him under a Spanish oak bush at Owl Holler. Bit my boot clean through. That's where we're goin' today, so hurry on up and finish before the heat comes."
Jacob soaked up the last of the gravy with his biscuit and slugged down the bitter coffee and they walked into the woods with Spider loping beside them. They walked to the snake place through a low and narrow path cut through thick brambles. They crossed dry creeks and climbed over fallen oaks. They walked quietly through the woods, led by the coon dog Spider who'd disappear in the brush ahead of them for long periods of time only to return panting hard and smiling up at them the way dogs do. Baxter never spoke a word. Jacob had been on only one snake hunt before. Baxter had taken him to a dark icebox canyon without a name. He said the spot had been snaked out for years but wanted to show him the kinds of places to look and teach him the elusive ways of reptiles in their natural habitat. They turned over rocks and fallen trees and found a black coach whip snake about four feet long. Baxter showed him how to pin it down with a special pole he made for the purpose and then bag the creature. The coach whip snake didn't put up much of a struggle. Apart from shitting down Jacob's arm he caused no trouble at all. The stink of the snake shit stuck on him like skunk for days and the memory of it was with him still. Baxter had told him that snake scent drove Spider crazy because when he was a pup he had squirted it on the dog's nose and let little snakes loose in his kennel.
Baxter had found what he called a motherlode high up on the Double Fork, a dry creek once fed by a spring that stopped flowing the day of the earthquake in 1916. He'd been watching one particular spot for two nights and knew for sure that a large queen diamondback had herself a den below a flat rock at the top of an avalanche pile. He carried a burlap sack, a crow-bar and a long wooden rod with a steel hook on one end. It had words carved into its shaft and he called it a Judas-Pole. He fashioned it from a single locust branch and the wood shined from long use and oil from his hands. He burned the opening line of Mark 16:18 near the top, and he mumbled it over and over like a mantra as they walked along.
They shall take up serpents. They shall take up serpents.
After they had walked for two hours, Baxter stopped near a tangled deadfall and debris pile pushed down the creek when it had flooded years ago. A mudslide had plowed up a mound of boulders and trees into a foreboding organic mass twenty feet high. The seemingly impossible configuration of earth, stone and stump took on the surreal aspect of a mud sculpture scraped together with one quick stroke of a giant's hand. There was no telling what manner of beasts could be dwelling within its folds and crags. Baxter turned to Jacob and held his index finger to his lips. Its tip was missing. He lost the whole top knuckle, nail and all, to a snap-jaw panther trap he fell into as a boy. Baxter made a strange shaking movement with his other hand and Spider dropped to a sit.
"Stay quiet and hold the bag," he said. He threw the sack at the boy and sprung up onto the debris pile. He stepped carefully from boulder to boulder. He moved slowly, like he was walking a minefield and tested each rock with the tip of his toe before putting the whole of his weight on it. He held the Judas pole out in front like a wire-walker and tilted it from side to side for balance. He stopped near a flat top rock and squatted down in front of a hole beneath it that had an orange day lily growing from inside of it. Baxter leaned his ear into the hole and listened. Then he sniffed the air like a hound and he turned his head towards the boy. He nodded twice and laid the pole to the side. He inserted the end of the crow bar into a spot beneath the flat rock. Several days earlier he had tested the rock's weight while the snake was on the hunt. With a rapid motion of the bar and his body, he flipped the rock over. The bar dropped to the side and clattered like a cow bell on the boulders below. Baxter's arm shot into the hole quick, and he pulled out a twisting rattler as thick around as husk of sweet corn and long as a bull whip. It coiled around his arm and shook its rattle but Baxter had its neck closed tight in the vise of his hand. He walked back down to the ground and stood in front of the boy. Jacob opened the sack. Baxter's arm had turned tomato red and swollen. The big rattler, clenched up in a death squeeze, cut off his circulation. It had a flat black head, as big as a cat's. It opened its mouth and showed its fangs and pink flesh to the both of them.
continued - 1 2 3 4 5 6