The Serpent's Tooth

CHAPTER 1
Rising Water

Gary put the receiver back on its hook. He sat engulfed in the huge bed, an oversized pillow behind him, wooden writing board on his lap. Dazzling paisley sheets were lying in casual disarray at his feet. A nervous hand attempted to smooth the tousled hair of translucent gray that topped his shaggy brows.

“Charlotte,” he called in a tone that said, please come help me deal with the world.

She opened the door to this academic retreat with reluctant compliance. Really those paisley sheets were a lovely bargain, she couldn’t help but note, though they did lend an air of Arabian Knights to the bedroom/study. And her professor husband, with his fly-away hair and high Croatian cheekbones looked almost like some mythical Persian piloting a flying carpet; or maybe a lecherous Bedouin about to usher in his favorite harem girl.

“The horses are out. They’re in Henry’s pasture. Corvel said he herded Henry’s stray calves back through the gate, and somehow the horses ran through. He couldn’t get them back and had to close the gate. There isn’t much of anything for them to eat back there, you know.”

Charlotte remembered the bleached bones and skulls that dotted the pasture owned by Henry. And she couldn’t forget’ the rusted pieces of barbed wire that seemed to grow from the neglected and weedy land.

“I’ll go out right now and get them back.”

“I’d go with you, honey, but...” He looked in frustration at the tidy piles of paper anchoring the disheveled sheets. Obtuse mathematical formulas were etched in decisive black felt tip on some, pages of esoteric prose on others, but even more ominous were the thick piles of blank pages on the wooden writing board.

“I’ll take Brandy with me,” Charlotte reassured him. “It will be relaxing for her after all those final exams.”

Brandy retrieved the boots from the hall closet, sleek English riding leathers for her, and mud-coated western pig hide for Charlotte. With inner amusement, Charlotte made her way to the front door of their comfortable urban dwelling past first the antique writing table in the parlor, then into the living room with the old roll top, catching a glimpse of the huge wooden table in the dining room. Then she pictured Gary, engulfed by paisley sheets, floating on a sea of academic scribblings, with his back propped up by a pillow on their double sized bed. “Well, a writer writes where he wants, where he feels secure, in that personal nook that is found by instinct not logic,” she reflected. Maybe the same contrary instinct, she thought, that makes horses leave a field of healthy Bermuda grass for an ill-tended pasture of weeds, barbed wire, and livestock skeletons.

The recent rains had created an emerald landscape quite unusual for Texas in June. The gently rolling slopes to the east of Balcones Fault defined the small oasis of black farmland just thirty miles from Austin. Not as thrilling as the rough beauty of the hill country to the west, this land offered the more serene beauty of a nourishing earth mother. The clay soil held precious water that just washed over the sheer rock cliffs to the west, held it so long and with such fierceness that a loose boot heel might be sucked off during a walk on spongy turf.

So, like a suddenly mature man who abruptly tires of giggling beauties and begins a quest for “a good wife,” Gary and Charlotte had stopped traveling to the exotic hill country and began a systematic effort to secure land east of Austin. The forty-acre ranch, complete with ramshackle house, was the reward of two years of laborious searching. One horse expensively boarded at a stable had now become six who lived quite well off the fat of the land, country western music occasionally supplanted Vivaldi, and Charlotte now wondered if her training in classical violin would be a help or hindrance in learning to play the fiddle.

Brandy closed the ranch gate and hopped back in the Bronco just as the storm broke. A long narrow cloud, looking like a threatening charcoal snake above them, held its ground and refused to move on.

“Let’s not even try to drive up to the house,” Charlotte decided aloud. “In fact, I’m going to back the car closer to the asphalt. You know the water runs over the gravel road here right at the gate sometimes.”

Brandy quickly relocked the gate, and the two climbed over it, resigning themselves to soaked clothes and drenched hair. Charlotte guided Brandy to the high grounds and was surprised to see puddles even on the hillside. The ground was really saturated; this rain would only run off the soaked landscape.

By the time they’d gathered halters, lead rope, and the all-important bribe of grain, the rain was pelting them in a soft but steady stream of huge drops. The front tank was spilling over to the green tree-lined valley, churning a narrow brown path down its center.

By now Charlotte and Brandy had given up dodging standing water, but they both kept alert eyes on the ground. Stories of snakes fleeing flooded holes to seek higher ground added tension to an already challenging chore.

“I see them, Mom.” Brandy pointed to a slight rise about 200 yards the other side of the property line. The gate that once linked the cross fencing of Henry’s 1000 acre ranch was now on the boundary of their forty acres and his last 100. It was a mute witness to more prosperous times. What was usually a pleasant dip of land under the gate became a moving swirl of muddy water, and Brandy had to struggle to pull her boot from the sucking clay.

Charlotte looked for the best way back to the horses and saw only a few islands in a tangle of rushing rainwater. She and Brandy sludged their way to the stranded animals, first taking the depth of the many opaque rivulets that they had to ford.

They would only catch one horse, lead him out, and hope that the others would follow. This was their usual practice when catching the horses for a ride. Charlotte had made use of reinforcement theory, one of the few practical applications of her college psychology course, and rewarded the herd with grain in the corral at random intervals. Thus, she had surprised several seasoned horse trainers who were sure that five horses wouldn’t follow one captured cohort into a corral. Sometimes academic training was unexpectedly relevant, she smiled.

It was easy to catch Abras, her stubborn gray gelding, even without the grain. The glistening horses were stoic structures almost glued to the muddy ground. At the sight of the grain bucket, however, they roused themselves and began a curious and greedy walk to Brandy and the aluminum pail. The slippery ground and circle of horses, each irritably vying for the grain, was suddenly an unforeseen and real danger.

“Dump the grain,” Charlotte commanded. Brandy did so with quick compliance and backed away from flattened ears and warning kicks. That these menacing looks and behaviors were directed toward each other and not Brandy didn’t lessen their potential harm.

The protective mother had rescued her offspring from harm, but at what expense? Now, as the remaining horses poked their muzzles into the yellow corn, oats, and sweet molasses on the ground, Charlotte wondered how much time this delay would cost them.

They had made it there with cautious determination, but some fifteen minutes of rain had bathed the saturated clay since then. Was the gateway a swollen river now instead of the earlier oozing puzzle? Charlotte led her gelding toward the gate, ignoring his resentment at being left out of the feast. Soon, the two youngsters were edged out by the three bossy mares, and they took hesitant steps toward Abras and the gate. Now Charlotte and Abras were approaching the gate with the two year old Shazaar and yearling Shazaara about 100 yards behind. The greedy mares had finished the soggy grain by now, but instead of following, they had resumed their earlier stations. Worse than that, the herd leader, Capzara, was calling to her filly, which now ran back to Mama, her delicate legs prancing high and mischievously in the mud.

“I’ll get them,” Brandy called, the worry in her voice mounting at the same rate as the flood tides. She went for her Silver Sun, the nineteen year old sprightly copper beauty that was the object of Brandy’s devotion. Coaxing her forward, awkwardly pulling her head, and finally trying the other end with a resounding slap on her rear, Brandy succeeded in herding Silver Sun toward the gate.

Charlotte, never one to let a false sense of dignity obstruct whimsy, curiosity, or now necessity, began to nicker to the laggards. Soon Abras was encouraged and whinnied himself. His girlfriend, the maiden Silver Sun, answered and began to splash forward through the spongy earth and swirling water with renewed effort. The hesitant youngsters caught this enthusiasm and began again toward the gate, while Brandy yahooed and waved her hands to shove the last two mares forward. The smoky Meleoxon reluctantly slushed ahead, but a brave whack only rooted the Stubborn Capzara to her ground.

They’d have to leave her then, and get the others out now, before the water rose any further. Charlotte and Abras tromped through the opening, going steadily until Charlotte stepped in a hole and went down to her knees. She might have lost her balance, but for her iron grip on Abras’ lead. He dragged her forward a step or two and she was on high land.

The others ran through almost joyously with Brandy poised at the gate, closing it behind their tails.

Just as she was securing the chain, there was a blur of silver and a panicked neighing. Capzara thundered to a stop at the aluminum barricade. There was a risk in opening it, as Capzara might just as easily lead the others back through it as come through herself.

Brandy chanced it and opened the gate just enough to let the panicked mare through, but a few hesitant testing steps into the charging water and she balked. Brandy braved her touchy hind­quarters with e well timed slap, and finally, the troublesome beauty was through.

Brandy, whose dreamy teenage reveries sometimes kept her at routine chores forever; Brandy, who usually was the last one out of the house each school day, running to the car with shoes in hand or blouse askew, had closed and latched the gate, chosen safe footing through the water, and was suddenly behind Charlotte in shocking haste.

With a triumphant click, Charlotte released Abras, and the two humans watched the horses thunder through the rain to their favorite high ground, running with prancing legs and arched necks. with streaming manes and flagging tails, like carousel horses suddenly released from an evil spell by some repentant wizard.

The graveled road was now part of the brown stream overflowing the front tank, an opaque barrier some twenty feet wide between them and the parked Bronco. Bisecting it was the still locked gate, part of which was submerged in the muddy flow. For a moment, they felt trapped, unwilling to ford the current. Charlotte recalled front page pictures of helpless motorists stranded in the flash flooding that often followed heavy rain here, snapshots of a stricken husband who had watched his wife being swept away by the powerful current. Sometimes horses, cows, and even cars were washed downstream in the engorged rivers.

From its mark on the orange gate, however, the water was only 8-10 inches deep, so Charlotte grabbed Brandy’s hand and started to pick her way cautiously to the car. She chose her footing slowly, testing for sudden holes where sections of gravel might have washed away. The metal gate reached a welcome hand out half way through the crossing. They climbed it quickly and leapt into the remaining water with relieved splashes. The Bronco was waiting patiently, its tires just touching the brown flow, like some venerable bather dipping its toes in water’s edge while watching the younger generation frolic and splash in the greater depths.

With tacit efficiency, Charlotte and Brandy each crouched next to a front tire to turn the hubs to the lock positions. Even as they jumped into the car, the water had gained ground. Had they parked closer to the gate or been detained any longer, the Bronco might have been stuck, or possibly, washed into the ditch.

They would take the longer way home, avoiding the caliche roads and low crossings that were part of their usual scenic shortcut to the main highway. Charlotte stopped at the first stop sign, turned off the motor, and stepped onto the reassuring asphalt. With an awkward tug, she pulled off her boot to pour cupfuls of water onto the pavement. Brandy followed suit, and they both laughed. This had been the first relaxed moment since the storm had broken. But a glimpse at the rapidly overflowing stock ponds and drainage ditches reminded Charlotte that it was still raining. and they had a 35 mile ride back to Austin ahead of them.

It was a tedious trip, with the lashing rain obscuring visions and several patches of highway covered with water. One lightweight compact had washed into a ditch, its passengers waiting in the rain for the flashing lights of the highway patrol. Nearer to Austin, the storm was less intense, though, just a steady light rain that ran in civilized obedience into the waiting concrete drainage pipes.

So an incredulous Gary received their tales of flood and mayhem with raised eyebrows and cool skepticism. Only the evening news and reported road closings northeast of the city could corroborate their story. But the pooped pedant, eyes irritated and overused, was sound asleep by the 10 o’clock news and its brief coverage of the heavy rain outside of town.

***

Brandy slapped the paper onto the table next to Gary with such force that she nearly toppled his morning cup of coffee. She pointed with enthusiasm to the large picture and bold print beneath it on the front page: Daring Flood Rescue. Pictured was a local volunteer fire fighter with a rope around his waist. moving toward an almost submerged car and the woman who was perched desperately on its roof. A second story was headlined, “Man Drowns Near Bridge Construction.” Brandy read it aloud:

“A 59 year old man drowned in his pickup yesterday, as flood waters swept it from a temporary crossing at a bridge construction site in Williamson County. The victim, Henry Sweigurt, was apparently going to rescue some stranded cattle when he met with the tragedy. His body was found yesterday at 6:00 p.m. by a local rancher.”

 

 

 

CRAPTER 2 
The Old Ranch House

Back on April, even without the rain, Charlotte had had a problem herself with that bridge.  She remembered it well:

She cast a grim look at her son Damon seated next to her. Charlotte should have known better. The red clay detour ramp was not meant for public access. The road was clearly marked, Bridge Out.

But she had made use of the local expedient, side-skirting the detour sign and taking the roller coaster mud ramp through the dry wash all of March without mishap, and she had become careless in that way reserved for vain outsiders and arrogant amateurs.

It didn’t take much rain at all to slick the construction ramp, and it was only after she was part way down one side and felt the trailer behind her slip to the side that she noticed the slimy clay. Undaunted, with optimistic faith in American technology, Charlotte stepped out of the Bronco to turn the hub to four-wheel drive. Again the novice pride asserted itself as she felt in charge, maybe even a bit pleased to use the expensive technology usually not necessary in this snow-free climate.

However, the easy optimism was a thin veneer and quickly faded as attempts to back up met with horizontal rather than reverse momentum. An abandoned pickup on the other side of the ramp was more indication of the futility of the passage.

Then the dirty gray cloud above seemed to speak as the radio station warned of an oncoming storm cell reportedly dumping two to three inches of rain an hour. Already, the misty drizzle was changing to a more regular sprinkle.

Charlotte saw three choices. She had, unfortunately, already tested the most logical one and found that backing a trailer uphill on wet clay was not possible. Waiting was really no alternative at all, given the oncoming storm and their precarious position, not to mention the lumber behind in the open trailer. The third option, in that frenzied moment, seemed the only sane one. So with a courage born of necessity, she calmly stationed Damon as scout an the trailer, moved the gear to four-wheel low, and slowly began moving down the mud ramp.

The wet weather creek was dry now, but why had she never noticed how narrow and temporary the mud crossing was. However, she was beyond that hazard now and steadily moving up the steep ramp to the other side, only now realizing how close the abandoned pickup was to the red ribbon of a road. Charlotte steered the narrow Bronco to the very edge of it, remembering the eighteen inches that the trailer protruded on either side of it.

She had to ignore Damon’s gasp and keep up her steady ascent until, miraculously, they had made it. For once, her teenage son’s announcement was not exaggeration. The awed and strangely respectful voice was stripped of its usual flippancy and adolescent arrogance.

“We cleared that pickup by one inch, Mom. That was really close.” Then, almost as an afterthought, an involuntary retreat to unaffected earnestness, “Good driving, Mom.”

Elroy bent over his saw horse and sliced through the wood. His agile frame and tireless effort belied the label senior citizen or semi-retired. A nod of his head and a shy smile acknowledged their presence.

“I think we’re in for some rain,” Charlotte announced. “I guess we’d better stack this lumber inside. I almost didn’t get here with it,” she added breathlessly.

Elroy listened with quiet amusement to Charlotte’s narrative of her narrow escape from the dry creek. Damon, now composed, resumed his detached demeanor, and punctuated the adventure with wry remarks cloaked in scientific terms.

“The weight of the trailer really was a stabilizing force,” he lectured. “The incline of the ramp was actually very gradual and calculated to afford street traffic as well as road crews.”

The three had formed a kind of human conveyor belt and hoisted the 1 x6’s through the sagging window frame in a steady flow. Charlotte was posted inside, where she received and stacked the still aromatic wood in neat piles in the one vacant room,

“Ouch!” Damon’s energetic delivery of the lumber was getting a bit too exuberant. Charlotte instinctively lifted her hand to her mouth, and then removed the offending splinter.

“Slow down some, fellows,” she reproached. “I’m getting behind, and my hands are beginning to feel like pin cushions.”

The clap of thunder that immediately followed at first seemed to lead a stamp of authority to Charlotte’s request. The ground even shook as in deference to her wishes. But its true warning was clear enough, and Charlotte soon found herself having to ignore the wooden needles as she hurried to stack the last rush of now rain-dotted timber.

Damon and Elroy stamped inside Just as the big drops began. Elroy discarded the plastic wrapper and placed an unlit cigar in his mouth. He chewed it with philosophical absorption, gazing out toward the back pasture.

“Them ain’t your calves out yonder?” he asked, nodding toward to rain the rain-soaked field.

“No.” Charlotte strained to see the five black and white forms. “How long have they been there?”

“Last three or four days,” Leroy acknowledged. “I didn’t think y’all had any beef stock.”

***

Damon and his school friend ran with the gaudy kit, letting the late March winds play throw and toss with them. The month was living up to its name, and the dry gusts now carried a pollen that dusted cars and porches with army green.

Tommy sneezed. That was enough to upset his aeronautics, and the orange and red kite nose-dived into the earth. He looked at it petulantly and then turned his resentment toward the old ranch house that had silently observed his defeat.

“That’s the ugliest house I ever did see.” Tommy told Damon.

Charlotte smiled and considered the judgment. Well, yes, she guessed some might think it ugly. “A fixed upper,” the real estate agent had called it. The seventy-five year old boards were gray with age, rough and gnarled with the years of blistering sun and the buffeting of blowing sod. One drooping side sadly donned the’ pale remnants of anemic yellow paint in the almost pathetic way an aged coquette still wears a gaudy brooch or reddens her lips. The three doors were covered with rusting corrugated metal, a belated attempt to keep curious cow away from the hay stored inside. That the barricade had been erected too late was testified to by the mauled and soggy hay intermixed with enough manure to fertilize three backyard gardens. An overriding odor of ammonia offset the would be sweet smell of the unspoiled hay.

“Yeah, they had a good time of it. Was in there a week before Corvel knowed they’d gotten in,” Lucille chimed in, apparently reading Charlotte’s thoughts. Then, in an attempt to be the conscientious farm tenant, “Why, that hay in ‘ere’s no good, anyway.

Just weedy Johnston grass past two years old.” She lit a cigarette from the ignited butt in her hand, pausing in talk just long enough to tuck the new Camel under her upper side lip. It hung limp and casual, like the fag of a cheap hood in some Bogart movie, only Lucille did it with more ease, expertise, and yes, even more class, than any play­acting Hollywood actor could. The fascinating thing was how it moved as she talked, hanging there somehow like a stubborn baby tooth that refused to let go its last stringy hold.

“That of lady didn’t know nothin’ about farming,” Lucille continued, letting loose this greatest of indictments against the previous owner. The Camel flopped gently as she chuckled scornfully. “Only out here some three or four times a year, and then jest to pick them grapes--” she nodded toward the wild mustang grape vines hanging luxuriantly on the barbed wire fencing and covering the low thicket with green quilting. “Crazy about honey, too. Jest loved them bees.”

Charlotte glanced toward the east side of the house. A low pitched buzzing only hinted at the mammoth hives honeycombed throughout two sides of the L-shaped structure. The warped board and batten facade created the perfect creviced entry to a secure home for the honeybees; the wild clover was there in the field for the asking, and no one had questioned the bee’s stewardhip of the ranch house in at least twenty-five years. That would have to change. Charlotte made a mental note of it.

“Didn’t they scare her? Wasn’t she ever stung?”

“Why, I don’t know,” replied Lucille. “but she kep’ bees in her backyard at home, too. Used honey for everything. Something against sugar. You know the type. One of them natural livers. Probably never let a good steak in her life, probably a dim vegitar’n, too.”

“Yes, I remember when I made her tea, when we were closing the sale. She asked for honey then, but I didn’t have any. From what I’ve read, it isn’t really better for you than sugar...”

Lucille’s weathered face was puzzled, her shrewd eyes squinted. She was certainly not interested in Charlotte’s review of the honey-sugar controversy, or for that matter health foods or healthy living in general.

“Ya’ know, for a vegitar’n,” (Lucille’s supposition had now become fact), “she could sure shoot a sow all right.”

“What?” queried Charlotte, finished rambling on about sugar and honey, and now on to the mixed blessings of diet colas.

“That sow o’ of Henry Sweigurt’s. Killed it right here with a ‘22. Corvel saw her do it. But she was in her rights, ya’ know. 0ld Henry’s sow kep’ on comin’ over here and even charged her two kids--they can be vicious sometimes. She told him about it, but he wouldn’t pen it up and it kep’ comin’ over. Poor hog. How could it know Henry didn’t own this place no more. Kind a served Henry right, though. He’s a terror for letting his stock wander,”

“Were those his cattle that got into the wheat field last month?” Charlotte wondered aloud, vaguely remembering Corvel muttering about Henry’s cattle breaking down the fence and wallowing in the tender grain.

“Yep, it was. Don’t wonder they get out. Not much for ‘em to eat at his place.”

Then they heard the low rumble of a perfectly tuned mechanical dinosaur, and Lucille, turning her head to the sound, waved to the overalled figure seated in the towering combine. “Well, Corvel’s done with your wheat field for today. Now I’ve got to do some combining in Structure.”

Deftly stomping out her Camel, Lucille strided over to the awesome machine, and with surpassing agility ascended to the air conditioned cab. Her husband moved to the side, and Lucille maneuvered the 52 thousand dollar giant with easy authority, looking perhaps more up to the job than her spouse.



CHAPTER 3 
Nature’s Bounty

Charlotte walked toward the back pond or stock tank as they called it here in central Texas. What a utilitarian name for such a whimsical little lake. Each time she saw it on one of her weekly visits, it was different--angry and muddy after a storm, only to turn clear and innocently blue days later, like a cherubic child after a vanished fit of temper. One time in winter she had counted fourteen wild ducks floating there, then at her approach, seen them take off effortlessly at forty-five degree angles, as if some magician pulled them up on hidden wires. This May day it mocked her; the frogs leapt into the water with insulted croaks and noisy splashes that never failed to make her start. A lazy turtle jumped from his rock to the safety of underwater, suddenly poking his head, snake like, out on top again, a gentle reproach for this disturbance. Only the skating water bugs and buzzing gnats ignored her intrusion.

A velvet black butterfly arabesqued past, beckoning her to the enchanted crazy quilt of wild flower prairie above. She followed obediently, as ever, enchanted by the delicate beauty that could exist in this often harsh land. A few crested blue bonnets bowed imperiously in the breeze, complacent to be the state flower and grace any number of clichéd paintings, postcards, and photographs. Charlotte tolerated their presence, but her natural affection went to the lesser known more humble varieties. Blushing buttercups dotted the landscape, and crimson Indian paint brushes reached for the blue and white palette of clear sky and clouds. Shy violet blossoms hid beneath grassy tufts while peach colored succulents lifted curious heads above the shaggy turf. Even the plain dried grasses and weeds held a natural and casual beauty. An especially inviting clump waved from a nearby gate. She pushed it aside to uncover the straw bouquet.

Tck-a-tck-e-tck-a-tck-

Instinct preceded thought, and Charlotte stepped back before the thought, “snake” was consciously registered. She saw it now, a brown and yellow rope parting the grass as it moved. She had nearly stepped on it. The swinging gate must have startled the diamondback, as it was now moving away from it and towards Charlotte. Strangely, she was somewhat grateful when it stopped, coiled itself, and began to rattle a warning to her.

How easily it blended into the black/brown soil and straw-colored grass. It was a strain to keep it spotted.

“Gary, there’s a rattlesnake back here.”

Her spouse was there now, but his plan was not particularly comforting.

“You stay here and watch it, while I get something to kill it with. Don’t let it get away.”

For some reason, that last remark didn’t sound at all ridiculous. Charlotte was buoyed by her knowledge of serpentine habits, carefully based in an almost voyeur fascination that spurred hours of pouring over National Geographic Illustrated Reptile Encyclopedias, and other written sources. She’d read every Reader’sDigest account of real life encounters with snakes, and studied the labels at the reptile house with a thoroughness that tried the patience of her children when she took them to the zoo. Just recently, she had been fascinated at the Taylor Rattlesnake Round­up, featuring timed sacking contests between two-men teams armed only with a burlap bag and metal device almost like a pronged golf club.

A coiled snake, she repeated like a mental catechism, can only strike one third the length of its body. Why, Charlotte was at least ten feet away by now, and the snake was between three and four feet. So when her quarry seemed to be losing interest, Charlotte moved a step or two closer, rewarded by his renewed rattling and her cautious sense of pride.

Only a naive high school English teacher from Chicago, where snakes were of the human variety, would be teasing a four foot coiled Western Diamondback and actually enjoying it.

“This was all I could find.” Gary was rather breathless, as he returned carrying an eight inch landscape timber gleaned from the barn’s new mud deck.

Now a real Texan would have gone to his pickup to retrieve a well-oiled 12 gag and dispatched with the critter in no time. The old timers would have brought a sturdy garden hoe, and some daring good of boys would have faced mankind’s tempter armed with only a stout tree limb.

But her Gary, the self-made scholar, the professor of statistics who learned his early arithmetic on Chicago’s south side., was more experienced fighting youthful street gangs or more recently, analysis of variance coefficients, than he was versed in rattlesnake warfare.

“Don’t get too close! “ Charlotte, the snake seductress, was now a worried wife.

In due deference to her concern, Gary loosened his grip on the cumbersome timber and walked his hands back nearly to its end.

The dull thud of the timber was followed by a cry of pain.

“My thumb,” Gary moaned as he looked at the about-faced joint, “I’ve broken my damned thumb.”

Meanwhile, the affronted reptile crawled slowly away from this human circus.

***

“And what is your problem?” The white coated emergency room nurse bent over the seated foreign looking man.

“My tongue hurts,” he whined, and proceeded to display the offending appendage like an irritated child.

The figure in white assumed a most serious expression and examined it carefully.

The admittance clerk poised over the computer as she looked vacantly at the shabby man in front of Charlotte. “And when was your last visit here?”

“Last Wednesday,” he replied, and simultaneously the computer spewed forth his record, a detailed account as long as some government pamphlets, and as interesting.

“My eye still been bothering me,” he volunteered. “I think I needs more of that pain medicine.”

The clerk’s dubious stare did not intimidate this regular customer. He waited expectantly, with an air of accustomed confidence.

“Be seated over there,” she finally returned, rolling her eyes after he moved to the right.

Obviously Sunday morning was their slow time, and various patients timed emergency medical needs accordingly.

“But you should have finished the medicine even though you felt better.” The nurse’s words seemed a foreign language to her puzzled listener.

“I was all right last week, though. Its only today that my throat started hurting again.”

A Job-like mask settled on the nurse’s countenance.

“No, this is our first visit,” Charlotte told the attendant, who seemed a bit surprised by a new customer on a Sunday morning. Charlotte looked anxiously at Gary, sitting on the bench in silent discomfort. A quiet man, he was almost mute in the face of physical pain, and his reaction toward officious bureaucrats was a rebellious refusal to respond to inane questions.

The nurse approached him with her Sunday morning air of patronizing patience. “And what is your problem?” she asked in brisk cheerfulness. He held up his dislocated thumb.

But she needed a verbal comment, some words to record on her clipboarded duty roster.

The same mute reply and again the repeated brisk question.

“I’ve dislocated my thumb!” Gary finally informed her, somehow conveying his disgust that he, the patient, should have to make his own diagnosis.

“Oh,” she replied, somewhat chagrined. “And how did you dislocate it?”

“Killing a rattlesnake,” was the succinct retort.

“And did you kill the rattlesnake with your thumb?” she asked in all seriousness.

Gary cupped his good hand over his massive Slavic forehead, looked at the tiled floor, and slowly turned his head from side to side, a motion that voiced more contempt than any vulgar expletive he might have been thinking.

“You know,” the beleaguered nurse confided in Charlotte, as she watched Gary disappear into the treatment room, “I didn’t know what to say when your husband showed me his hand. A lot of our patients are just naturally deformed.”



CHAPTER 4

Dewberries

“You’ll need these.” Lucille extracted a pair of oversized hunting boots from Corvel’s closet. They were thick brown leather, adorned with scuffs and various colors of dried clay, made with deliberate scorn to style, and looked, Charlotte thought, perfectly horrible.

She stuffed her leg into the boot and found that it reached to just below her knee. Her denim jeans were manipulated inside and helped hold the cowhide contraptions on.

“Now we’ll get you a good stout broomstick!” Lucille seemed to be enjoying herself, almost like a veteran knight arming his squire for a first battle. She rummaged with noisy abandon in the utility room. “This ‘un ‘ill do fine.,” she beamed, and handed Charlotte a weathered cylinder of wood about four feet in length. It was obvious that some period of time had passed since the wooden staff had been united in service with broom bristles.

“Make sure an dab yourself good with that kerosene.” Charlotte complied with a certain reluctance, wondering if she might be setting herself up as a possible victim of spontaneous combustion out in the brutal sun. “Get yourself real good at your boot tops and waist.” Lucille had noticed the lack of enthusiasm in Charlotte’s anointment. “Them chiggers just love to get in where it binds. And with all this rain, they’ll be fierce in your dewberry patch.”

Charlotte relinquished any remaining hygienic fastidiousness, and fairly bathed herself in the odious liquid. “That’s more like it.,” Lucille chuckled. “Now bring your bucket and let’s go.”

“You really think we need all this equipment just to pick dewberries?” Charlotte queried once in the pickup.

“Why no, if you want to be gathering snakes and chiggers along with the berries.” Lucille laughed at her little joke, but Charlotte merely smiled politely, lost in wistful reminiscence of the ease of produce gathering at her local Safeway.

“These boots really do seem quite protective,” Charlotte ventured with attempted enthusiasm. She tapped the brown leather in much the same way the inexperienced car buyer kicks the tires.

“Why, Corvel wouldn’t go huntin’ without ‘em. A snake ‘d have some time getting through them, though I’ve heard of some could bite might through them regular Sunday kinds. It’s the extra length that helps, too,” she continued. “You’re safe clear up to knees, at least.”

Charlotte tried to feel comforted by this somewhat limited testimonial. “By the way, Lucille...” Charlotte was eager to turn the conversation away from fanged serpents for a time, at least. “You were saying that Henry was wearing his best boots when they found him last week.”

“Sure enough. It didn’t make too much sense to me. Why. Henry never wore his custom boots when he was workin’, or tryin’ to look like he was at any rate.” She winked at this allusion to Henry’s well-known aversion toward physical labor. “Used to brag on them boots. Had ‘em custom made in Houston and paid a good dollar for ‘em, too. Alligator they was, though they didn’t look any better ‘n Corvel’s Tony Lamas, which I bought for him last Christmas.”

“Wasn’t he supposed to be going to tend to his cattle or something?” Charlotte asked.

“Leastways that’s what Fernando thought,” Lucille answered.

They were at the drive now, and Charlotte jumped from the truck to open the gate, walking with an ungainly stride in the monster boots.

Lucille parked the truck in the shade of a low slung mesquite tree, and was walking briskly toward the dewberry patch.

She was already at work when Charlotte arrived. “First,” Lucille began, “you want to poke around real good with your stick.” She made good her word with a vigorous beating of the dewberry bush and the spongy soil beneath it. “And look for holes. Don’t bother with bushes if they’ve holes around ‘em.”

“I know,” Charlotte hastened to reply., hoping to cut off the inevitable reference to lurking vipers. She was already pounding her victim dewberry bush with commendable passion and was almost disappointed to see no slithering beasts retreat from this assault. Next, she crouched awkwardly and began to harvest the violet jewels, occasionally testing their ripeness by popping one in her mouth.

But if Charlotte and Lucille were armed for combat to pick this sweet harvest, so were the bushes. Delicate thorns dotted the tangle of vines, extracting a price for each berry picked. With the unrelenting sun above, the threat of slithering vermin below, and the regular clawing of the protective vines at work level, there was kind of clipped conversation with long gaps, the kind of talk that usually accompanies hard physical labor.

“But why would Henry have to drive to get to his cattle, Lucille? I thought that all he had was this last 100 acres.” She gestured toward the adjoining property, the fence line where refuge cattle had escaped from Henry’s poor pasture into hers with regularity.

“You’re right there. But he leased some land near Taylor. He had about 50 head there.”

“So he was going there, to Taylor, when he was washed away.” Charlotte thought about this as she put a battle scarred finger to her mouth. The same bridge, she thought, where she had nearly been stuck. “But he was wearing his custom alligator boots,” she murmured aloud.

“Yup.” Lucille had found a particularly promising bush and was racking it with concentrated energy. Idle conversation about their deceased neighbor did not particularly interest her now. “Durn, these are big. I’ll fill up my bucket in five minutes here,” she chortled. “Come on down here, Charlotte. Must be because of the run off, all that May dirt that washes through here.”

Indeed, these berries were giant-sized, luscious velvety gems whose quilted texture reflected the sun like so many rubies. Thoughts of Henry and his alligator boots easily gave way to the pleasure of reaping this bountiful harvest. It is a well-earned reward for the farmer to reap the crop he has sown, weeded, fertilized, and protected diligently from maranding pests and blight. But a wild harvest is something else entirely. It is a return to the Garden of Eden innocence and the unearned bounty of benevolent Nature, or perhaps for the more skeptical, a vestige of the greed in human nature that caused the subsequent fall from grace. But Charlotte and certainly not Lucille did not ponder the philosophical or religious uncertainties that caused this magic; they merely fell under its spell and abandoned themselves to the unrivaled delight of reaping the wild bounty.