Haying season was upon us, Henry was in a middle of a growth spurt that might even see him tall enough to rassle harness in another year or two, and Reggie had persuaded the bunch of us to leave him to his own pursuits instead of putting him to work like we done fer his brother a year ago.
“His own pursuits” being the study of, believe it or not, the various snakes slithering around the ranch.
Which drove his Mom nuts, but not even Penny could sway the eight year old, purely bull headed Reginald Tamson from his chosen path. I was purty sure he was eight, anyway. The kid was plumb scary. Ever time one of us shot a rattler–and we’d all done it one time or another–that boy give us the evil eye.
Wouldn’t surprise me none if he grew up to be one of them AMITH types. The organization–Animals are More Important Than Humans–was raising Hell back East. Founded somewhere in Pennsylvania, if memory served. Henry said he’d seen an AMITH pamphlet Reggie kept tucked under his mattress. They were quite the rabble-rousing bunch, constantly petitioning the U.S. Government as well as Corporate America to cease and desist their evil ways.
AMITH would likely have approved of our secret seed herd of buffalo…but disapproved of us culling the herd regularly to keep its numbers workable in the box canyon. And certainly they would have disapproved of us eating the buffs we culled.
Some said them folks were actual vegetarians.
What’s a vegetarian? They only eat vegetables, I guess. Like rabbits or something. Never mind that we ain’t grass eaters; we eat the critters that are grass eaters.
No, no, I don’t believe them critters really exist, either. Bigfoot? Sure. But a Bigfoot makes sense. Not eating the meat and fat that gives a man strength…crazy. Plumb insane idea. I’ll believe there’s real werewolves and vampires and such out there before I believe them vegetarians are anything but the figment of a fevered imagination.
At least young Reggie wasn’t turning down bacon and eggs fer breakfast or a good slice of rump roast fer supper.
Not yet, anyway.
“Hey, babe.” I gave Marie a friendly pat on the rump as she passed me in the kitchen. Having finished dump raking my first field of the season a bit early, there didn’t seem to be any reason not to help Reggie out with his wood cutting chores. Which explained why I was in the kitchen at this hour, hauling huge armloads of firewood in to fill the woodboxes.
“You,” she replied, smiling. She was checking a pot of something or other on the biggest of the three main dining hall stoves…when it happened.
Now, I reckon I should explain, Penny Tamson was kind of taking it easy after having had Kid #6 not so long ago. A girl this time. They’d named her Georgia, which I didn’t understand at all, but it was none of my business. So Pen was in the main house, resting her eyes a bit.
That left Marie, Laughing Brook, and Elly handling the cooking duties, doing this and that around the big dining room. There were kids present, of course: Our Sadie and Daivd T., Coug and Pen’s Susan and Phyllis and little Felix, who Tam had told me was Believer reincarnated.
The main point of this here story is: Felix was all of two years old at the time.
The family was some concerned about the lad, too. He was huge fer his age, not pudgy, jist big, strong as a baby ox, bright blue eyes–got ’em from his Mom, obviously, despite the rumor that daddy Cougar’s brown should have dominated–walking and even running…but still not talking. Hadn’t word one come outa that kid’s mouth to date. At the moment, he was sitting on the floor, playing with an old, cracked stoneware plate, one of them big twelve-inchers. There’s no understanding what’ll count as a toy fer a kid.
Anyway, my armload of firewood was the end of it fer the day, which meant Reggie’s chores were also outa the way. And here he come, bouncing in through the front door all excited, hollering, “Look what I found!”
In his hands was a three-foot Western diamondback rattlesnake, pissed off to beat the band and buzzing like nobody’s business.
Now, you’ll excuse me iffen I end up not quite telling this next part right. Truth be told, there was a lot of fear and panic going on in that dining room right then, and the images that registered on what passed fer my brain were kinda jumbled.
–Reggie had the snake by the neck with his left hand, near the tail with his right, and the whole middle section was writhing around something fierce.
–My .44 Russian was in my hand and the hammer back, but I couldn’t git a clear shot.
–Somebody screamed. Mighta been me fer all I know.
–Reggie’s grip on that snake’s neck slipped back jist far enough, the rattler got turned around and got a fang into his wrist.
–The kid dropped the snake, which quick as lightning balled up in a fighting coil and struck–at little Felix, who sure enough was sitting well within striking range.
The rest of it, I know I seen right. That pit viper hit at Felix, but it never hit Felix. The toddler lifted that stoneware plate he’d been playing with, and danged if the reptile didn’t hit that instead. I could hear the -thwack!- when it made contact.
Then the shooter in my hand belched flame, black powder smoke filled the kitchen, and that spring-steel package of death and destruction lost its head. I’d found my clear shot, twelve inches to the right of baby Felix and maybe twenty to the left of Reggie.
Redheaded Penny come barreling into the kitchen after that, you can bet your bottom dollar.
With the women ministering first aid to the dumbass kid who’d thought we killed rattlers on sight jist fer kicks and giggles, it was left to me to head fer the barn on the run, saddling Joker and whatever horse was handy fer Penny. We couldn’t wait fer any of the other men to git in from the fields, and the buggy weren’t made fer a mad seventeen mile dash to Walsenburg like the one we had ahead of us.
Pen and I’d swap off, holding the boy in the saddle in front of us, as needed. The rest would follow as they could, whoever felt they had to be there.
But on the way out, jist fer a second as I leaned down to grab hold of the snake’s writhing body, I looked into the ancient blue eyes on two year old Felix and said, quiet so’s nobody but me and him could hear,
“Welcome back, Believer. Good to see you still got game.”
I know you’ll be thinking I’m lying, but I’m telling you, the boy winked at me.
It was near midnight when I dropped my tired butt into a chair at Ethel’s Eats and said simply, “He’ll live.”
Ethel had been kind enough to stay open past ten this one time, jist fer Flywheel. Told us to lock up when we left, handed me the keys, and went home to bed. Of course, “us” in this case meant jist me and Dawson, who could more than use beds of our own.
Which we’d not be seeing fer a while yet. We needed to talk, wind down.
“The girls done right on the first aid. Got most of the venom sucked out. Doc kinda raised an eyebrow at Penny doing that and then riding Hell bent fer leather all the way into town like she done, but he didn’t say nothing.”
“No. Don’t reckon he would.” Dawson grinned, knowing no sawbones in his right mind–not even Doctor Georges Chouteau–would dare to openly criticize a redheaded woman fer putting herself at risk to save her son.
“Doc says he may have some long term damage in that wrist and hand, though. Lifetime, could be. The rattler did only git the one fang in him, but apparently that fang was loaded fer bear. You don’t never fully recover from a rattler bite, not completely. Not that I ever heard of, anyway.”
We talked fer another hour, Trask occasionally getting up to refill our bowls from the stew kettle Ethel had left going fer us, or to refill our coffee cups, or raid the cafe owner’s pie supply. We’d leave her a handsome tip, fer sure.
Cougar and Penny had gone to the hotel. Reggie would be staying the night–at least–in the hospital. Everbody else had stayed home.
“Coug is damn near ready to kill his own kid, you know.” I didn’t much blame him, neither.
“Yeah.” Only being bitten had saved Reggie from getting his hide tanned with the razor strap till he couldn’t sit down fer a week. . “Did anybody else tell you about Felix?”
“What about Felix?”
“The snake. Before I could git a shot at it, it took a whack at Felix.”
Turned out nobody but Dawson had seen that part of what happened. Wrong angles, I guess; their vision of Felix (on the floor) was blocked by the table. Except fer Reggie, who was standing right there, but he was too busy realizing he’d been snakebit to notice much else.
“He blocked the strike, tale teller. Picked up that big, heavy stoneware plate as fast as the rattler could go fer him–well, allowing fer the half second or whatever it took the critter to coil. A three foot pit viper against a two year old boy, and it turns out the snake was outnumbered.”
I thought about that fer a second or two…and then chuckled. “That does sound like Believer. He told me many times, you use what you got and go from there. But I tell ya what, Dawson. How be we keep this between you, me and the gatepost?”
He shrugged. “Whatever trips your trigger.”
“Because if Cougar finds out about this…you know, that Reggie dropped the snake practically on top of Felix and Felix come that close to getting killed…well, I’m none too sure my son wouldn’t take Reg out and dump him down a hunnert foot hole somewhere. Wolf picked up the snake, by the way.”
“To git rid of it? I apologize fer jist leaving it slung out there in the yard, but things were a bit busy–”
“Nope. Not getting rid of it. Reggie’s uncle Wolf told me he’s gonna take that skin and make a hatband or a snakeskin belt–he wasn’t sure which yet. But he is sure he’s gonna talk to Coug, set it up so’s Reggie has to wear that skin in one form or another fer the next few years.”
“Huh.” Dawson’s eyes sparkled. “As a sorta subtle reminder not to do that again?”
“Yep.” We rose from the table, snuffed out the lanterns, and headed fer the door. “Subtle is my Heyókȟa son’s middle name.”