We're lost when we leave our cities. Those of us born and raised there don't know how to function when we find ourselves in the "natural" world that's so large and strange to us. Things aren't made to our scale out there. The space seems limitless. Rules apply there that man didn't make, and they aren't written; they're learned from experience. That's sometimes a painful processs—sometimes a lethal one.
I learned that shortly after moving in midwinter to a town named Parker, Colo., about 25 miles southeast of Denver. My wife and I were going to try to breed and raise thoroughbred horses, while I worked as a supervisor in a catalogue house to help make ends meet. So we leased a little spread, with a modest house, a barn and a quarter section of land. A quarter section is 160 acres, which, if it were in a square parcel, would measure a half mile on a side. It was, to me, a lot of land.
The surprises that nature gave us were pleasant at first: Watching a herd of mule deer move slowly up a draw at the bottom of the hill my house was on, the does in the lead. Seeing an owl fly like a giant butterfly through a silent, snow-spangled night. Listening to the coyotes bicker at 5 a.m. over something they had caught. Heading for the barn one morning and finding a herd of antelope grazing in the pasture. I felt as though I had returned to Eden and was a new Adam, naming the animals as I found them. I thought it was fun.
Around St. Patrick's Day, we had a spell of weather that was sweet and warm beyond believing. As I would find out later, Denver doesn't really have a spring as I knew it, but this was a beautiful and premature imitation. We took advantage of it by saddling up and going for a nice ride.
November 2, 1981
The first thing I noticed when we got back to the house was a very loud, high-pitched noise. It sounded like gas or steam escaping under pressure. It seemed to be coming from the basement. I opened the outside door to the cellar. We had two dogs, which we kept in the basement whenever we'd leave. Normally, they would tumble out of the doorway as soon as it was opened. They didn't. They stuck their heads around the corner at the bottom and then retreated out of sight.
I started down the cellar stairs, mentally tabulating what it was going to cost to get someone this far out into the country to fix a broken line. My suspicions about the cause of the sibilant noise were rapidly approaching confirmation as I reached the bottom of the steps. I'd pinpointed the sound as coming from the water heater, but as I turned toward the heater, I didn't see any escaping steam or water. The dogs came up to me excitedly, and then ran back toward the water heater, and in that instant I saw what was making the sound.
There on the floor next to the heater was a prairie rattlesnake, coiled and rattling, ready to strike. The dogs seemed all set to go for him when I yelled for them to stay. I don't know if I'd ever yelled that loud before in my life. They backed off and I chased them up the stairs. Adam had a new animal to name. It wasn't as much fun as before.
I ran back upstairs and slammed the door shut as though the snake were coming up the stairs. "There's a damn rattlesnake down there," I said to my wife. Then, as if someone had given me instructions, I headed for the barn.
"Where are you going?" she asked me.
"To get a hoe."
I could have tried shooting the snake, but I realized that a stray bullet offered all kinds of potential hazards. The snake was more or less in a corner and a rifle shot could ricochet off a wall with dire effect to the water heater or even myself. I would somehow have to kill the snake without shooting it, and the hoe seemed like my best bet.
A phrase came to mind that we'd used in the service to describe a crisis situation: gut check. At the time this was happening, though, I didn't consider it to be a test of courage. I only wanted it to be over.
Hoe in hand, I reopened the basement door with dread. The noise was still going on. As I went downstairs all kinds of doubts went through my mind. I was about to attempt something that was totally outside my experience. Nothing had ever happened in my life to prepare me for a moment like this. I had no idea if I would succeed, but I had to. As far as I knew, the only way to get the snake out of my basement was for me to kill it and take it out. I reached the bottom of the stairs hoping it was all a bad dream, and the snake wouldn't be there. He was there. At that moment I was filled with an overwhelming wish to be somewhere else, anywhere else. If sheer mental effort could transport a man, I'd have been gone.
I raised the hoe and slowly moved toward the snake. I had to kill it, but I didn't know how to begin. I could see its eyes watching me, and behind its head a blur, which was its tail. The sound was indescribable, echoing off the concrete, like the chirr of locusts on a summer night.
I pushed the hoe in its face, tentatively, the way a boxer jabs at an opponent in the early rounds to measure him. I didn't know what the hell I was doing; I just felt that I had to do something. The snake wasn't impressed. It struck at the hoe. Successfully. As I pulled it back I could see the venom dripping down the blade.
At that instant of fumbling and frustration, the training of forgotten years suddenly paid off. In desperation, my brain went back to boot camp—Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. I recalled fighting with pugil sticks at bayonet practice. I hadn't distinguished myself at that activity, but I had new motivation. I struck a stance that was probably ridiculous, but who was watching? I raised the hoe overhead and brought it down in the middle of the snake. At the same time, I let out a yell that would've made a DI proud. The hoe connected somewhere in the snake's midsection. It stretched out from its coiled position, and I yelled and struck again. I think at this time I was reacting as much from fear as anything else. I don't know how many more times I hit it. When I was done it was dead.
I felt triumphant. I was victorious, not so much over the snake as over circumstances that only moments before had overwhelmed me. But even in my euphoria, I found it odd that the noise persisted, seemingly as loud as before. As I went back upstairs I vaguely recalled an old wives' tale about rattlesnakes—after you kill one its tail keeps going until sundown. It didn't make sense, but I was new to such mysteries. I informed my wife of the demise of our guest. I think I probably swaggered a bit as I headed toward the barn to put the hoe away.
Before I got there, I met Dean, my landlord, standing at the pasture gate. "Dean," I said, "how long does it take for a rattlesnake's tail to stop going after he's dead?"
"Why, did you kill one?"
"In the basement."
"In the basement!"
And we went. We heard the sound as soon as we got back to the house. "I don't understand it. I'm sure it's dead," I said. Down the stairs again, and around the corner. The corpse was still there, motionless. The sound was still being made. We walked up to the dead snake.
I don't know which of us saw the other rattlesnake first. It was about three feet from us, in the corner, coiled between the wall and a vertical two-by-six. It was actually off the ground, wrapped into that space like a pretzel.
Dean swore and grabbed the hoe from me. The blade was too wide to fit into the space, so he turned the hoe around and used the handle to poke at the snake, trying to scrape it out of there. The snake writhed and twisted. If you have ever seen a snake move, you have some appreciation for the strange feeling that its motion generates in the watcher. The nature of the snake's musculature or something gives the impression that the snake is going in different directions at the same time. It gives you an eerie feeling. It doesn't seem possible that you're watching one creature go through all that motion. Dean got the snake to move out onto the floor and gave it one good whack behind the head and killed it. At last the basement was quiet. We got a paper bag and a shovel and scooped the two snakes into the bag. And then we went upstairs and had a drink.
As we drank, we tried to figure what my wife and I should do next. Circumstances prevented impulsive action. It just isn't possible to move 20 head of horses on the spur of the moment. We had no idea how the snakes had got in there. We had no idea if there were others or if there would be others. We eventually persuaded ourselves that the warm weather had caused these two snakes to come out of their hibernation earlier than usual, that they somehow got into our basement, and that it was a one-time occurrence.
Later that night I went into the basement to test our one-time theory and put my mind at rest. I took a flashlight to be thorough. I even went so far as to shine the light along the tops of the walls, where the beams supporting the floor above rested, and when I saw the pattern of a six-inch section of snake slowly moving above my head, I couldn't believe it. My breath stopped. I moved the light away and then back again. The snake was still there. I went back upstairs. Once again, I didn't quite know what to do next. My wife, by now, was nearly hysterical. She wanted to leave and check into a motel. I didn't see that we were in any immediate danger—but that was a long night.
I went to work the next day and had a good time telling the story. My enjoyment was much less intense that night when I returned home, checked the basement and found the snake again. It was in a different location, but it was there. And I had to figure out how to get rid of it.
I decided to shoot it with my 20-gauge. I couldn't think of any alternative. It was located above my head, I could see only a small section of its body, I didn't know where its head was, and I couldn't see any wires or pipes around it.
I told my wife to keep the dogs out of the part of the house above where I was going to shoot and to stay away herself, in the unlikely event that the pellets penetrated the floor. And I shot it. It writhed and I shot it again. It fell from the ledge and scared me nearly dead, but it was the one that was dead.
After that, assuming there were more snakes in the cellar, we settled down to a siege. We couldn't just pull up and leave because the horses couldn't be abandoned. We weren't really in any danger because the snakes couldn't get into our living quarters—and we didn't go into the basement unnecessarily, believe me. The siege even had certain advantages: On a slow Saturday I could always grab a weapon and go down to the basement to hunt snakes. And I kept finding them, one at a time.
We called county agents, zoos, exterminators and fish and game agencies looking for a way to get rid of them en masse. And we got suggestions. It's truly amazing how people will feel obliged to answer a question, even when they don't have an answer. We were advised to buy a mongoose and turn it loose. Someone else said to get a pig, that it could combat rattlers with immunity because of its protective fat. One of the more imaginative answers had a certain appeal—it was to put out saucers of Black Flag and let the snakes eat it. The appeal was that it sounded so simple. Another theory was to get some bull snakes and put them in the basement with the rattlers. Somehow the bull snakes would engage the rattlers in combat and emerge victorious. Well, I'm pretty gullible, but before acting on advice that seemed less than profound, I thought I'd turn to my ace in the hole. My ace in the hole, my sure thing, was my friend, Lloyd Goding, who was about to get a master's degree in biochemistry at the University of New Mexico. His field of study was in warfirins, which are kinds of rodent poison. Would he know how to get rid of these snakes? Does a koala bear like eucalyptus? I mean this was solid.
I related the whole business to Lloyd, complete with all the flaky suggestions. He took it all in, said he wanted to talk to the dean of his department, who was a herpetologist, and then he'd call me back. To his credit, I don't think he laughed. Three hours later the phone rang. "Hello," I said.
"Let me tell you exactly what he said," Lloyd said. "Are you ready?"
"Use a gun or a club. And be very careful when you pick them up, because the venom is still dangerous."
"That's it? What about...?"
"Forget all the rest. Black Flag is good for cockroaches and other insects, but it won't do much against snakes, particularly since I don't know how you'd get them to eat it."
I can't say I was surprised by Lloyd's bleak report. One final phone call did get an exterminator who said he had a method that he used for Minuteman missile silos—it involved the use of cyanide and would render the house uninhabitable for two years. I didn't think Dean would endorse that idea, although he'd said that he'd told his insurance man about my problem and asked the man's advice. The insurance agent had recommended burning the place down, saying he'd rather have a fire insurance claim on the house than a liability suit resulting from a death from snake bite that had occurred on the property.
Weeks went by, and the battle went on. I tried to lure the rattlers out of hiding and into the center of the basement, feeling it would be easier to kill what was easily seen. This effort involved buying a mouse cage and two mice. I hung the cage from the basement ceiling. No luck. One mouse escaped, and the other died a natural death.
We discovered how the snakes had gotten into the cellar. There was a full basement under only half the house. The other half was just a crawl space. The entrance to the crawl space was a 2'x 2' boarded opening in the wall behind the water heater. I took the cover off this opening and could see into the crawl space. At the other end I could see a small hole in the foundation. Apparently the snakes had come in through that hole the previous fall. Perhaps they had been attracted to the full basement because it was warmer than the crawl space; they had entered the larger room by dropping over from the top of the wall separating it from the crawl space.
Looking into the crawl space one day, I saw the outline of a large snake. I killed it easily with one shot from the 20-gauge. There were no problems with wires or pipes in the crawl space. But now there was a problem with that snake. It was 25 or 30 feet into an unlighted space that was probably occupied with friends of the deceased. Spring was on the way. Warmer weather not only meant more activity from my tenants, but it also meant the decomposition of the corpse. I had no idea what a rotting snake smelled like. I didn't want to know. Neither did I want to go in there to get it out. This dilemma set up the Last Great Snake Adventure.
It started, as so many things do, with a conversation. Dean was over one Sunday and the talk turned to snakes, as usual. I remarked about the remains in the crawl space and wondered aloud about how to get the dead snake out. If memory serves, we were having tall Scotches at the time. More than one. A look of resolve came onto Dean's face. "Hell, I'll go in there and get it out. You guys have put up with enough. You don't have to smell a dead snake." (I should comment that Dean was generous almost to a fault during this whole debacle.)
We went to the barn and got a 400-watt light. I secured several extension cords. The idea was to give Dean some light to take with him as he wriggled around in the crawl space. He would, at his insistence, go in with my short-barreled .22/410. I was going to "cover him" with my 20-gauge. I held onto that shotgun as moral support. I didn't actually expect any snakes to attempt an ambush.
Looking back, I don't think I really had any understanding of the bravery I was seeing. Dean was going into a space so confining that he couldn't even begin to stand up. He was going to be in darkness except for the narrow beam of light emitted by his hand-held lamp. His only exit would be through an opening that measured about two feet square. And he might be entering a space occupied by dozens of venomous snakes. Maybe we were just fools. Or drunk.
But back into the basement we went. It was beginning to smell like something left over from World War II, what with all the gunfire that had gone on.
As we took the cover off the crawl space, I said, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Hell, no. You think I shouldn't?"
And, light in one hand and gun in the other, Dean crawled through the opening. His back was to me and he was just beginning to turn around when the light went out. You could've heard him yell in Kansas. So many words were coming out of him at once that it was hard to know what he was asking for, but clearly his first priority had to be to get the light fixed. He was screaming for me to find where the connection had been broken in the line of extension cords. I frantically fed the cord through my hands, looking for something that wasn't right. I didn't have any luck, but suddenly, with Dean still yelling, the light came back on. Dean said sheepishly, "I stepped on the damn thing and broke a connection up at this end." Then he looked up and said, "There's one right there," and I moved back from the opening as he raised the gun and shot the snake. It was a very small one, less than 12 inches long. We had reached the point of measuring them, almost like fish. We were disappointed by the little ones.
Well, Dean kept crawling around in there and accomplished a lot. He got the corpse of the large snake out. He found and killed a total of seven more rattlers, ranging in size to about 18 inches and bringing to 18 the total that had been found in the house.
Several weeks later, in May, I would discover the 19th and last rattler. It had been weeks since we'd seen any, and we'd just about concluded that we were through with them. Habits are sometimes hard to break, though, and I still patrolled the basement on a regular basis. During one such patrol, on a weekend, I spotted No. 19. It was up in the beams, where the third one I'd killed had been. The pattern of its skin was visible, and the thickness of its body indicated it was another large one. I used the .22 and shot it through the middle of its body. The shock caused it to flip over as it fell right toward me. Almost in a panic, I jumped to avoid the snake. It landed on the cement floor, writhing and rattling, its back broken. I raised the gun, aimed for its head, pulled the trigger and killed it. While my body was doing those things, I was feeling a sadness at the act. The snake wasn't there by choice; instinct had driven it into my house to seek a place to hibernate. It wasn't moved by malice or design to put me and mine in danger. But it was, without doubt, dangerous, and it seemed to me that I'd failed because I'd been unable to neutralize that danger without destroying life. I killed it because I had to, and I was sorry that I had to.
We found a place to move to by summer, although no more snakes were left in the crawl space by then, we were certain. Dean said that there was an old Indian belief that if you hung a dead rattler out to dry, it would bring rain. We hung a few on the fence at the end of May. It rained every day in June.