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“But sort of hurry”
September 15, 2004

Like lots of kids, I grew up on my dad’s hunting stories.  He had plenty, but they weren’t about multi-pointed bucks and exotic trips.  No, he told stories that echo across all of America about a time and place when farm boys virtually were born with guns in their hands--boys for whom hunting might be fun, but was also a necessity. 

“We seldom shot anything merely for the sport:  we either needed the meat or killed to get rid of pests—crows, owls, hawks, snakes of all sorts, and any animals we found prowling in the vicinity of our chickens.”  

Nobody and no animal was going to mess with my grandmother’s chickens!

We often visited my grandparents on the hard-scrabble farm in West Texas where Dad grew up.  Every time, he shared his favorite hunting tale.  He’d walk us right up to the barbed-wire fence, the very barbed-wire fence, and explain how when he was about seven and his brother Clarence nine, they had the job of pulling weeds to feed the hogs.  There wasn’t money to buy a luxury like commercial feed. Dad wasn’t old enough to tote a gun, but Clarence was, and he didn’t leave the house without it. 

When he grew up, Dad wrote about his life on the farm.  Here is how he remembered a sweltering Texas afternoon, some time around 1912.

 

***

 One hot day a little before sundown we went to pull weeds, circling through the pasture and along the creek in the hope of spotting a squirrel.  We had no luck.

Dad had built a tight four-strand barbed-wire fence along the end of a field on the land he had bought, and some broomweeds had grown up under it.  As Clarence squeezed through the fence between the first and second wires, the inside of an overall leg caught on a barb.  He swayed back through in an attempt to disengage the barb, and the other side of the barb caught his other pant leg pretty far up in the crotch.  He was caught and could release himself only by using his hands.  He looked down and saw that he was standing on a rattlesnake.  He jerked up and the barbs on the wire above caught his shirt and suspenders.  He was fastened securely in the tight wire.

            We knew that when close to a rattler it was dangerous to move unless you could move fast and far.  The rattler, apparently having dined on a young rabbit or a bird’s nest, seemed a bit sluggish, but he raised his big mean-looking head slightly, and his tongue darted in and out.  There was the slightest buzz of the tail.

We knew that if Clarence moved a foot and didn’t get out of the way, in an instant the coiled serpent would strike and very probably hit him.  This could mean death.  We also knew that if I crept up behind Clarence and tried to free him of the barbs, the rattler might strike and keep on striking.

Clarence was pale as a ghost and trembling, and sweat broke out on his face and hands.  “Get behind me and ease the gun out of my hands,” he said.  then get the barrel close to his head and shoot.  Be sure and hit his head.”

I was frightened and nervous, I’d never shot the gun except at tin cans.  I knew that if I hit the rattler anywhere except a fatal shot in the head he would lurch and lash with head and tail and that an accidental hit with his fangs could be as bad as an intentional strike.

“Just take it easy,” Clarence said, “but sort of hurry.  Get the muzzle about six inches from his head and shoot.”

My hands were trembling, but I managed to ease the gun out of Clarence’s hands.  I stuck the barrel between his legs and poked it close to the rattler’s head, which was raised in alarm.  I squeezed the trigger.  There was a loud pop and a puff of smoke.

            Clarence bore his weight on the bottom wire and lifted his bare feet from the ground.  The big rattler thrashed around, buzzing his tail, but his head stuck to the ground.  My bullet had gone straight into the back of his head and killed him instantly.

With the muzzle of the gun I dragged the snake away from the fence and we freed Clarence from the barbs.  He was one shaking boy.

The diamondback had thirteen rattlers.  We cut off the rattlers to take home as a trophy and, of course, to show the family. 

Although we were highly excited, we tested the weather with this deadly reptile:  Clarence lifted it with the gun barrel and gave it a heave.  It landed on its back and stayed that way, white belly up, which was a good sign of rain if the snake remained belly up until sundown.  This rattler had only a few minutes as a weather test, for the sun was just going out of sight behind Signal Hill.

We pulled only skimpy loads of weeds and headed for the hog pasture.  Every step of the way I felt as if I were about to put a bare foot down on a big ugly rattler.

**

 

     Once Dad left the farm, he never went hunting again except when he did hunt-and-peck at his typewriter as a newspaperman and writer.  But Uncle Clarence?  He hunted all of his life.  He became the Callahan County, Texas sheriff and later a Texas Ranger.

Those little boys on that long-ago afternoon left the snake in the field.  Other times, they’d take more than the rattlers home for a souvenir.  Never could tell when a snakeskin might come in handy for a belt or hatband.

How to clean a rattlesnake

Make good and sure the snake is dead.  Place it on a board, and hold firmly behind the head. Cut off head and discard. Cut off rattlers for your collection. Strip off the skin and save.

 Make a long slice on the underside and remove all internal organs. Cut into chunks.  Rinse in cold water and refrigerate until ready to use (can be frozen).

            My grandmother drew the line at cooking snake meat.  But as long as we’ve gone this far, let’s have a recipe.

Baked rattlesnake

1 rattlesnake cut into 3-inch sections

1 recipe thin cream sauce

1/4 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced

2 limes, sliced thin

1 tsp. basil

1 tsp. white pepper

1 tsp. rosemary

Place in a large baking dish. Cover with cream sauce and add the mushrooms, limes, basil, pepper, and rosemary. Cover tightly.

Bake in 300 degree oven for 1 hour or until done.  You can substitute canned mushrooms for the fresh ones, or use a can of mushroom soup instead of the cream sauce.

            If you want to try this recipe and don’t have a snake on hand, try substituting chicken.  It’ll taste a lot like rattlesnake.

            Have you cooked a rattlesnake?  Please share your recipe. 

Note:  The snake story is an excerpt from Nubbin Ridge, by Lewis Nordyke, published by Doubleday & Company in1960.  It is used with the permission of the author’s daughter.


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