Rattlesnakes were very common on the ranch where I grew up, and I learned to avoid them when I was still a child. I would come home from school, change clothes, grab my sling-shot or the BB gun, and start out the door. The cats would come out of their reveries then and twist and stretch, preparing to follow me into the woods for the big hunt. I would shoot sparrows out of the trees, and the cats, one by one, would carry out the coup de grace; or we might go to one of the hay houses, where I would shoot mice for them. This was before I was allowed to use the .22; at which point, I would become a provider for our family, and those spoiled cats would have to hunt for themselves again.
My mother would yell, “Mucho cuidado!” And that was it; that was the sum of my training for going into the woods. ‘The woods’ was actually a chaparral, a brush country; mostly mesquite and huisache which grew tall enough to obscure one from anyone else’s view. Left unchecked, this shrubbery could become dense enough to be impassable; so every few years, illegal Mexican laborers, mojados, would be hired to dig up all the new plants and burn them. And here and there, one or the other had gained ground and had grown into a tree. Both the mesquite and the huisache are thorny as shrubs; the thorns thin out on the mesquite as it turns into a tree, making it climbable. And I climbed them all.
Blended into the environment were patches of grass burs sometimes as high as my waist; they would somehow attach to one’s clothing if one just happened to walk by. There was the barrel cactus with its thick jagged thorns; it never seemed to reach barrel status but instead kept a low profile underneath the other plants. There were stink bugs, fleas and ticks, a myriad of blood-suckers, vicious wasps, spiders, and red ants.
And then there were the prickly pears. One of these plants would quickly turn into a complexity of plants, which could then turn into a minute ecosystem the size of a car. Sometimes, this was where the rattlers would lurk.
Of course, I learned a great deal from my brother, Junior; I used to follow him into the woods when I had nothing but a sling-shot, and he had the BB gun. For me at that time, it was still just a game; we saw ourselves as Indians, or frontiersmen, or sometimes even space invaders. And some of you might well ask, “Was there any more to this game besides the killing?”
In the spring, the cows and the sheep would have babies; in fact, the entire fifty acres would come alive with babies of all sorts and with the splendor of color and freshness that would pass all too quickly. With just a little observation and a few accidents, a pretend-Indian could learn all sorts of things about life.
After suckling her calf, a cow would find a secluded shady spot and allow the calf to snooze there while she grazed. Eventually, her grazing would take her as far as twenty yards from the calf; and although it would not always be in sight, the cow would remain alert to the slightest sound. And a generally docile cow could become very aggressive and dangerous when raising a new-born.
It became an exciting game to wait for the moment, watch the cow, sneak up and touch the calf, and then sneak away without ever being noticed by the cow. And the game got old when I figured out that all I had to do was throw something to distract the cow, and I could practically walk right over and pet the calf.
The calf did wake up on one occasion and made the game interesting again, teaching me yet another lesson of life. A cow with a calf will not chase one very far, because it won’t leave the calf. Woefully, these were activities I could never talk about with my parents.
It occurred to me in later years that neither of my parents ever seemed to worry about us running around out there, considering the dangers. On the other hand, there were always loaded guns in the house, all within easy reach, and no one ever worried that we might misuse them. Nor was there ever the slightest temptation to do so. But we did learn to kill.
On a fall afternoon, warm and bright, my brother and I got off the school bus and repeated the walk home through the woods. There was a dirt road for the purpose, but it wound around and almost doubled the distance. Now that our sister was no longer in school, we would make our way through the burs and the shrubbery, like determined trailblazers. Even then, it was about 200 yards from the house to the public road.
Junior and I came out of the woods about thirty yards from the house and saw mother come out and approach us with some degree of haste; this was very unusual. She looked at my brother and spoke calmly, “Get one of the guns and meet me behind the house.” And while he went off to do that, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “You stay close to me.”
Behind the house was a big mesquite tree. That tree had already been a crow’s nest for me; all our animals had found refuge from the sun there at one time or another; when in full foliage, the outermost branches would sag to the ground and create a private little world, within where I could spend hours. But the foliage was about half gone now, and under the branches was a very eerie scene.
A very large rattlesnake had found its way into our backyard and under the tree. In all the years we lived there, this was actually the only time this ever happened. While there was plenty of prey moving about, there were other creatures; it was not a snake-friendly environment. And finding a snake like that in one’s backyard was not unlike finding a spider in one’s kitchen or bathroom.
The snake was coiled up and visibly tense; and six or seven of the cats had positioned themselves around it in what appeared to be a perfect circle, placing themselves about 3 or 4 feet away from the center. The cats all sat very still, moving only the tips of their tails, and never looking away; while the snake kept shifting its coils in place, looking from cat to cat frantically, restraining itself, its rattle going continuously but quietly.
A rattlesnake shakes its rattle loudly at first to warn intruders away; when the rattle quiets down, it’s a second warning. And there usually isn’t a third.
The cats were essentially keeping the snake at bay. Whenever the snake moved its head toward an opening in the circle, a cat would move there and just sit and watch. The snake was frustrated; it had built up its tension to the point of striking, but it knew it was surrounded. I was so engrossed in the peculiarities of that occurrence that I barely noticed when my brother came out of the house.
It all seemed to happen in an accelerated way. He simply walked up, aimed, and shot. There was a splinter of time encapsulated in the blast of that shot; the snake’s head exploded, there was an eruption of dust, and the cats all scattered chaotically and disappeared. My brother sauntered over and poked at the snake with the barrel end of the .22.
“Right through the head” he said with a grin, and he went to put the gun away. We would determine later that the snake had been seven feet long.
Mother and I stood there for a while staring at the lifeless creature, and then she squeezed my shoulder gently. “Those cats kept that snake right there in that spot for at least two hours” she said. “And I don’t know how long they might have been there before I noticed them.” And then she went inside.
I stood there just a bit longer, because I could still see the circle. I have continued to see that circle, something taking place within that circle, some sort of energy, a semblance of communication . . . and I know that I wasn’t the only one who saw something strange in that circle of cats.