THE HUNTING TRIP
Lionel A. La Vergne
Snakes are ugly, Satan's children crawling along the ground searching for exposed flesh they can release their poison into, so momma said. From the age of three till I was eleven, I had a deadly fear of all reptiles. An innocent garden snake slithering along the ground would send me screaming for daddy or mom, whichever happened to be the nearest.
Growing up in Louisiana, I had many chances to encounter the aforementioned garden snakes, rattlers, corals, and of course, the especially dreadful water moccasin. Louisiana, I believe has more then it's share of the slimy little creatures. I was convinced that they all knew my name, where I lived and that I was deadly afraid of each and every one of them.
Why? Why was I afraid of snakes beyond what would be considered normal healthy awareness? My older and only sister, Mary, was bitten while she was toddling in the yard and subsequently died. No one was certain what had bitten her, it could have been a spider or any number of predators, but mom was convinced it was a snake. So, along with potty training, learning not to wipe my nose with my sleeve and how to use a fork, I learned all about how terrible snakes were.
Each time I walked out of the house mom would say something like this: "be careful where you walk, look everywhere, avoid puddles." Puddles? During the long hot rainless days of summer our yard not only didn't have any puddles, the grass blades barely managed to poke their grassy heads up from the ground before they were scorched and burned.
I was born on July 19, 1937 and on my eleventh birthday I received the best gift imaginable. South of Lake Charles, where we lived, my mom's brother Uncle Fred lived on what had once been a farm. Uncle Fred wasn't a farmer but he was the best auto mechanic in three states. He liked his place because he hated towns of any size and he especially loathed the noisy, stinking machines that put food on his table. My cousin, Al, well, one of my cousins, since, unlike mom and dad, Uncle Fred had taken seriously the admonition to "go and be fruitful." Six of his children still lived there on the farm in the huge two-story house that sat in the middle of two hundred acres of prime swampland. Al, the youngest had just turned eleven and was my favorite.
Together Al and I would roam all over the area although rather slowly, because I was constantly on the lookout for snakes. Normally mom would not have allowed me to spend time on Uncles Fred's land, since on the driest day of the year, you could sometimes sink into a marshy hole up to your ankles. And, of course, everyone knows that each small puddle of water contains several hundred snakes.
I especially liked the cypress trees and the huge oaks. The cypress had a pretty color and the oaks had moss hanging from each high limb resembling an old man's dirty gray beard. Now and then Al wanted to show me something he had discovered, a nest of field mice, a family of flamingoes and doves high up in the pine trees and other fascinating areas on the farm. I didn't see very many because the paths to each became deeper, wetter and muddier as we approached them. Luckily the water well situated behind the house and on a slight rising was easy to get to. Uncle Fred liked brewing his own beer. He would then take the capped bottles, place them into a mesh bag, and lower them down into the cold water so his brew could age. The aging lasted till the beer was cold enough to give you freeze brain. Al and I would raise the sack, take out two bottles then go behind some tall weeds, drink the beer and if one of us had managed to get one or two, smoke a Lucky Strike. The combination of the beer and smoke would make us giddy and very silly.
Uncle Fred never bought any meat because everything he and his family ate, he killed. In deer season, dove, and especially duck Uncle Fred would get on his horse, the only conveyance he ever employed, and head for the swamps. Each time he went out he came back with a large buck on a travois bouncing along behind him or with a sack filled with whichever type of bird he'd gone looking for. I especially liked roasted duck, except that now and then I'd bite into a buckshot BB and that would send pain streaking from the offended tooth to the top of my head.
Reluctantly mom finally agreed to leave me with her brother. She was convinced Uncle Fred had been dropped on his head when was a baby, otherwise why would he be so different from her and their ten siblings. Aunt Ivy, Uncle Fred's wife, was a sweetheart, and according to mom, a saint in the making. "I swear that woman is heading straight for the pearly gates when she leaves the earth." Mom would say. Mom had been unable to locate anyone else to watch me while she and dad went to Baton Rouge to take care of some business, of which I had no knowledge, and even less interest in. Happily I learned I was going to stay at Uncle Fred's for three days.
"Now, Leo, remember stay away from puddles, look before you walk, etc etc etc." I loved my mom with all my heart but jeez, I had her speech memorized. Now that I was all grown up and eleven years old I had begun to wonder if mom was really right, were snakes that bad? Al didn't seem to think so.
"Look Leo, man, that's the longest snake I've ever seen. Let's get him." Al would sometimes say while pointing to one of Satan's spawn slithering through the grass.
"Get him?" I would say as I prepared to run in the opposite direction as fast as my short legs would carry me.
"Man, Leo, that snake can't hurt you, it ain't the kind that can hurt you, it ain't got any poison in it. See." Then he'd come running back to me with the thing flailing around trying to get free from his grip. Eventually he'd throw the viper to the ground, probably because I was crying, shaking in fright and generally peeing my pants. Al was my favorite cousin and I thought I was his, till he offered me a snake to hold.
Mom and dad finally left Uncle Fred's headed for Baton Rouge to take care of their business in the state capital.
The next morning, after breakfast, Uncle Fred went outside and began saddling his horse. When he had finished he went behind the barn to a pasture and came back with another one and saddled it.
"Why does Uncle Fred have two horses saddled?" I asked Al.
"Didn't I tell you? We're going with him."
"We as in you and me?" I said, surprised.
"Sure he's gonna go hunting and I asked if I could go and he said yes. Now that you're here you can come." Hunting, away from the familiar farm? Where to?
"Where to?" I asked.
"Oh around." Al answered nonchalantly. Being a little concerned I attempted to ask a few more questions.
"Come on, let's go." I heard. Uncle Fred was standing near the window looking into the kitchen. Al jumped up and I reluctantly followed.
"Get up here." Al said looking down at me from the saddle. I'd never noticed how big horses were, till then. I tried to put my foot into the stirrup, I knew how it was done I'd seen a lot of cowboy movies after all, but I was way too short. I felt powerful hands gripping me around the waist propelling me up to the spot behind Al.
Uncle Fred got on his horse and we moved away from the farm.
I bounced alone behind Al for what seemed like a long time. The farther south we went the muddier the land became and more trees and bushes of every type attempted to block our path. I was soon lost and I wasn't certain which direction would lead back to the house. Overhead the moss covered branches that had seemed like benevolent grand dads but were now evil wizards plotting my demise. The long grass moved in a way I knew was not caused by the wind. There was no wind. The air was thick and heavy with moisture and seemed to press down on me. It seemed harder to fill my lungs with each breath I took.
Uncle Fred slid off of his horse and gestured for us to follow. Al jumped to the ground and I watched in horror as his boots sunk up to his ankles in the soggy ground. When had he put on boots, and why hadn't he gotten me a pair?
"Come on Leo." Al called as he took off after his dad. Being a smart boy and quick-witted, I realized if I didn't get off the horse and follow them, I would be left alone to fend for myself. Trying to get down from the horse I slipped and fell face first into the muck. Struggling I managed to stand. I was covered with thick black mud that stunk. The smell was one of rot, the putrid odor of something long dead. Beneath the smell was something else, something past rotten. Looking around I caught a glimpse of Al as he was disappearing into the thick bushes. I sloshed toward him straining to pull my feet out of the marsh and not lose my tennis shoes. They were ruined and through all of my fear and disgust I thought about how upset mom would be.
Coming around a large tree I looked around but couldn't see Al or Uncle Fred. Fear spiked through me and I felt as though I needed to pee or do number two, or both.
"Al, Uncle Fred." I screamed. I'd like to say I just called out their names to verify their location. But that'd be a lie. I screamed, loudly. A tall stand of grass directly in front of me parted. Recovering quickly from my surprise and abject fear, I realized it was only Al.
"Over here, Leo." I moved as fast as possible. As I grew closer I sensed the walking was easier. The ground sloped up to a hillock that was dry and firm. Way too late for my shoes but I didn't care. On the dry land I no longer had visions of all of the Tarzan movies I'd seen where the bad guy eventually ends up in the mire called quicksand. His head disappearing as Tarzan, always the good guy, tried desperately to get the panicked fellow to grab on to the limb, the King of the Jungle, was extending in his direction.
Uncle Fred was standing near the edge of a large body of water. Weeds and cypress stumps and occasionally a full-grown tree broke the flat surface of the pond.
"I'm going to find my friend. You boys can fish if you want. Al, I've got some poles tied to my saddle, get them and fix up a couple of lines for ya'll to fish." Uncle Fred ordered.
I went with Al and watched as he slid two bamboo poles, with fishing lines and sharp tri tooth hooks wrapped around each pole. He seemed to know what he was doing and I was very sure I didn't. So, I just stood and watched him.
"Come on." He said, then headed for the body of water. Standing on the edge I looked down into the black dank pool and wondered how fish or anything else could be living in the pond's evil looking depths. Al got on his knees and began scratching at the loose muddy dirt. Soon he had several worms in his hands and he worked the hooks through their bodies. When both lines were ready he handed me one of the bamboo poles.
"Just flip the hook into the water. Sooner or later a fish will take a bite. We'll pull them out, clean them, then dad will fix a fire and he'll cook them."
"How will he cook them?' I asked.
"He's got oil, a frying pan, cornmeal and all the stuff he needs in that saddle bag on his horse, you'll see."
After what seemed a long time we heard a noise. Al was pretty good with the pole and had already pulled some funny looking fish with whiskers out of the water. He called them catfish and I had to admit they seemed to have whiskers, like a cat. I looked in the direction of the noise and watched as Uncle Fred, a large fellow in overalls and a tee shirt and two skinny kids just a little older than Al and I, came around the pond toward us.
The four stood and talked for a while then the kids stripped down to bathing suits and waded out into the water. Each had a rope tied around his waist and the large fellow held the ends in his big hands. I wondered what in the world this was about. Where the boys being punished? What horrible infraction could they have committed that would call for this? To my horror I saw Uncle Fred raise his 30-06 rifle and level it toward the boys. Oh my God, I thought, he's going to shoot them. Mom had said her brother was a little strange but I'd never imagined that he was this demented.
The boys began splashing and screaming, making a lot of noise. They're scared to death, the poor boys. I didn't want to watch this horror but I couldn't look away. Then the large man began pulling on the rope as the boys started swimming back to the shore. Uncle Fred raised his rifle and sighted the gun toward the boys. One, two, three loud reports echoed through the swamp. My eyes had closed automatically. When I finally managed to open them the boys were standing on the shore and Uncle Fred and the large man were wading into the water and I watched in disbelief as they wrestled onto the bank three dead alligators. At least I sincerely prayed they were dead.
"Come on." Al said excitedly and ran around the curve of the bank to where the others stood, looking down at the brown, scaled creatures that lay on the ground. Each had a hole where an eye would normally be, and they were indeed dead.
"Get the travois." The big man said and the boys ran off. In short order the alligators were loaded and hauled away by the three strangers. I'd never gotten their names and I really didn't care. By this time I wasn't in a very sociable mood.
Covered with mud, insects crawling into my underwear, still damp and having witnessed insanity of the highest order, I was not in a good mood.
"You boys, keep fishing, I'm gonna look around. Al, get the mesh bag from my saddle bag and put those back into the water before they start to rot." Uncle Fred instructed, disappearing back into the swamp.
"How long are we going to be here?" I asked.
"Till daddy decides it's time to go home."
"When will that be?"
"I don't know, whenever he's ready."
Back to our fishing, at least Al fishing, me I was just drowning, worms. I wondered how long we'd been out here. The pancakes I'd had for breakfast were long gone and I was getting hungry. My body itched terribly and the heat had increased and the air seemed too thick to breathe. The smell that had seemed to have had dissipated earlier, was back worse than ever. I looked over at Al. His pole was lying beside him and he was stretched out on his back.
"Al, you okay?" I asked.
"Huh, yeah just a little tired. I'm gonna take a nap." A nap? On this ground teeming with every type of insect known to man, not to mention alligators somewhere out in the water, alligators that had just witnessed the slaughter of three of their relatives. Were they at this moment plotting revenge? Since Al and I were the only humans around I knew those eyes were targeting us.
Behind me I heard a furious rustling in the bushes. I chose to ignore the sound although I felt a chill go down my spine. The noise got louder. Something was coming toward me. Did alligators crawl on the ground? Of course they did. In all the Tarzan movies they sped along the shore and into the water after their prey. I was very aware that Tarzan wasn't anywhere nearby so I decided I'd better turn and determine what it was and how fast should I run.
A furry, pointed face with long sharp teeth stood just inside the grass and looked at me. Just a mouse I decided. Big mouse, maybe a rat. I watched closely as the furry creature edged nearer.
"Boo." I said. Rats and mice were afraid of people and usually scurried away when I did that. This one didn't. It stood still and stared into my eyes. His mouth opened and it seemed to be full of several long sharp teeth.
"Al." Very loud this time.
"What?" I heard a sleepy voice answer.
"A big rat is standing over there and I think he thinks I'm made of cheese."
"There." I pointed.
"Oh, that's just a nutria. He won't bother you unless you bother him."
"Well, I certainly didn't bother him. He just appeared and he keeps looking at me. I don't like this, at all." Al came closer and stared at the big rat.
"Never seen one that big before. Usually they're only about twelve or thirteen inches long. That one is big, really big. Wait a minute." He got up and went to his dad's horse. He dug into the saddlebag for a minute.
"I though dad had brought one of his guns with him, but he didn't."
"What are we going to do?" I asked. My worry was increasing with each step the nutria took that brought him closer to my position.
"Nothing, he'll go away in a minute. Jesus, Mary and Joseph." He screamed. Turning I saw there were now five of the creatures each bigger than the other. Their fur was long and dirty. They stared right at me. I thought I saw an evil intelligence in those eyes and my heart seemed to halt it's beating. Al, that brave warrior who had informed me that they were harmless, scrambled up onto his dad's horse.
"Hurry get on the other horse, hurry, they're getting closer." I was frozen. I wanted to run, I had to move, I knew deep down they were going to savage me with those teeth, any minute. Finally I managed to rise to a standing position. Edging toward the other horse I kept my eyes on the monsters. The leader stood his ground but the other four began moving to my right. They're going to cut me off! I knew they were getting between me and Al and the horses. I tried to run. My tennis shoes were soaked and caked with mud. The ground was soft and my feet slipped in the loamy soil. I fell before I could reach the horse. I heard the rush of skittering feet along the grass and I knew they would soon be on me. I started to crawl and screamed as loudly as possible.
"Oh no!" I heard. I looked up at Al just a few feet away from me. His eyes were bugging out of his head and his face was ashen. I turned and saw the nutria standing inches from me. They had circled my head and I knew I would soon be hurting and bleeding from a dozen places. I realized at that instant Al had not been looking down at me, or the nutria, he had been looking behind me.
Rising on an elbow I searched the ground between me, and the lake. It seemed to be moving in a black tide. At first I didn't understand what I was looking at. It wasn't the grass or the muddy soil the ground I was seeing it was what seemed to be dozens of large snakes. Numbed, I wondered what kind they were.
"Moccasins." Screamed Al. Then the horses panicked and I heard their hooves as they ran away from me. I could hear Al screaming for Uncle Fred then all was quiet except for the sound of water moccasins slithering through the grass.
Momma had been right. I should never have come to Uncle Fred's farm. Just as my sister had died so would I, from snakebite. Not just one but from many. Faced with my certain death, either from nutria or water moccasins I suddenly felt very calm. I waited. I was frozen in place and couldn't move, even when the snakes began crawling over me and past me. I waited for the sharp sting and then the pain as the poison rushed through my body, eventually stilling my heart forever.
To my surprise the snakes kept moving over and past me and started attacking the nutria. A battle ensued. The grass was soon laid flat by the bodies locked in mortal combat. The nutria's teeth flashed and bit into the snakes that had their own fangs sunk deep into the rat flesh. The largest of the nutria soon had four or five moccasins handing on to him. Some of the snake's bodies had been severed in half yet the fangs held fast to the furry flesh. Blood flew and some of it splashed on my face that was only inches from the battleground. I don't know how long this went on. Fascinated I watched as though from a ringside seat a war that seemed to last forever. But as all battles do, this one finally ended. The nutria were all dead and lay in small heaps on the flattened grass. I couldn't see how many of the snakes were still alive since body parts were everywhere. None, I prayed with all my heart. Then they began moving slowly the moccasin bodies began stirring. I had thought they were all black but I could see some yellow and orange spots on some of the snakes. The feeling of lassitude that had enveloped me during the battle seeped out of me rapidly. I needed to get up and run but I had seen how quickly the snakes had moved. I knew I couldn't out run them even as tired, as they seemed to be. I knew this was my destiny, just as my sister had, and just as mom had preached for years, snakes were evil and they would one day kill me.
Slowly they began moving around me and away from me toward the pond. One by one they slithered toward the water, all except for one, a really big one. Raising his head he stopped right in front of my face. His black eyes searched my face for a long time. I assumed he was looking for a spot to sink his fangs into. Our eyes met and I knew at that instant I wasn't going to die, at least not from this snake's bite. I swear this is true and I will continue to believe this till the day I die. That snake shook his head in a gesture that seemed to say.
"You humans, you think all we want to do is kill you. We don't. We just saved you life, boy." Then he went his way.
I spent many happy days on Uncle Fred's farm. After graduation Al went to Vietnam and I went to college. I majored in herpetology. For years I worked with and then was in charge of all of the snakes in the zoo in Houston, Texas.
Mom never understood me and questioned my sanity till the day she died. I have never been bitten or had a problem with a snake no matter which type I worked with. Every day as I entered the large area where we kept the reptiles, I thought about the leader of the moccasins and the sad way he'd shaken his head, then I'd go in to take care of my friends.