When you live out in the country, you look at things differently than city slickers. I don’t live in the country yet, but spend enough time out there to know I’ve started thinking like a country boy. Take cowboy hats. I remember moving here to Texas, many years ago, and thinking to myself that I would never wear a cowboy hat. I wasn’t being snobby about it, in fact, it was just the opposite. Growing up, my heroes were John Wayne, Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger; I didn’t think myself man enough to wear one. Cowboy hats were a symbol of something much bigger than someone like me.
And truth be told, I’ve never much liked wearing hats anyway, not even when I was forced to wear them for all those years as a Marine. To this day, I rarely wear hats (if you look at the photos of me out there on the Internet, you’ll notice that I’m usually wearing a visor, which isn’t a hat…technically speaking).
But I learned a lesson about the utility of cowboy hats a few weeks ago and it’s now got me thinking about getting one. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, and we were down south working on my land where there’s never a shortage of things to do. Dan was helping me to relocate some steel beams that had been stacked up next to my fence line, under a large, dead oak tree, which needs to be cut down soon or risk having it fall on my fence this winter. So our task was to move the stack of heavy beams from their current location and re-stack them further down the fence line, away from the tree.
Because it was warm, Dan and I talked about the possibility of finding snakes under the stack of beams, and as if on cue, we lifted the first beam and immediately saw a small rat snake, maybe ten inches long and harmless. We picked it up and tossed it away from the stack of beams, and then we continued with the task.
A few minutes later, I felt a sharp pain on the back of my neck. I instinctively slapped at it, but didn’t feel anything on my neck, under my hand. The sting or bite, whatever it was, started burning, and I asked Dan to take a quick look. He came over and looked at the back of my neck, just above my shirt collar.
“Yup, something tagged you,” he said, “You’ve got a big red welt.” He looked for a stinger and for signs of the critter down the back of my shirt, but he didn’t find anything.
So with my neck still burning, we went back to work, having decided I would deal with the bite later. It occurred to me, though, that a spider or scorpion might have fallen on my neck from the dead tree above us. I was wearing a visor but that obviously didn’t keep whatever bit me from falling onto my neck. I realized that I needed a wide brim hat to keep the critters off me while working the land. It also occurred to me that there weren’t too many options for wide brim hats—a cowboy hat or a fedora or pith helmet were the only ones I could think of…a cowboy hat it was.
We continued moving the heavy steel beams, carefully lifting each end with a digging bar to look for snakes before reaching our hands under the beams. Dan had just told me a story of a Facebook friend of his who was camping recently. She woke up one cool morning and unzipped the tent fly to reach out and retrieve her boots when she was bitten on the hand by a copperhead that had taken up residence under her tent the night before.
With that story in mind, I pried up one side of the next beam with the digging bar and looked underneath; it looked clear. I put down the digging bar and lifted the beam to allow Dan to get a handhold. As I lifted it, I saw three tangled-up copperheads under the beam I was lifting.
“Copperheads,” I yelled, dropping the beam and jumping back. Dan, who was about to lift his end, also quickly retreated. We looked at each other, and Dan laughed. He said he hadn’t seen me move that fast in a long time.
I looked around to ensure Nala wasn’t there. Luisa and I had been looking at these beams the day before, and Nala was out here with us.We actually tried moving one of the beams and decided it was too heavy work for her. We’d wait until the next day when Dan arrived, and he’d help me move the beams. But Nala kept sniffing at the midsection of the beams, right where the snakes had been. I was glad the pup decided to stay in the shed with Luisa. The last thing we needed was Nala getting bitten by a copperhead.
Our immediate problem was that we had at least three copperheads somewhere under the large stack of beams we needed to move. One way or another, the snakes needed to go. We had a .22 rifle with us, but there was no telling how many more might be down there with them. So I walked back to the shed to grab the shotgun and told Luisa not to let Nala out.
As I walked back, I thought about the copperheads and wondered how we’d get them out. Because they were nested in a stack of thick steel beams, shooting them brought with it the risk of ricochets. All we could do was to carefully lift each beam, one at a time, and we’d eventually uncover the copperheads again. Then we’d have to get them far away enough from the beams to shoot them without ricocheting the bird shot back at us. There were a over a dozen beams to move, so this wasn’t going to be fun.
We decided to use the digging bar to pry up one end of a beam, while Dan looked underneath my end of the beam for snakes. Once clear, I set down the digging bar and grabbed the end of the beam, lifting it up high enough to give Dan a view under his end of the beam. Once clear, we’d lift the beams, which weight about 50 pounds each, and carry it over to its new location about ten yards down the fence line.
We did this and didn’t encounter any snakes, so we repeated the routine three more times, each time being more careful and moving slowly, watchfully. I had visions in my head of uncovering a large den of nesting copperheads and having them bolt suddenly in all different directions. The shot gun was resting nearby, and we started on our fifth steel beam.
Again I pried up my end of the beam, and Dan looked underneath, then he said, “There they are.”
I put the end of the beam down carefully, while Dan grabbed the shotgun. We agreed that I would move the beam using the digging bar, while Dan positioned himself to take a shot away from the stack of thick steel. If we were lucky, there would only be the three copperheads and they’d move away from the steel on their own accord, giving Dan a shot.
I moved the beam, and two of the snakes slithered out from the stack of beams, both of them crawling slowly, making it easy for Dan to shoot them. Then the third copperhead, a juvenile, slithered away too, and it was quickly killed.
There was no choice about killing the copperheads. Our family and friends always walked this part of the fence line, and the pup was always interested in this stack of steal. Now we knew why. So there was no question about killing them, but still, I couldn’t help feel a ting of sadness over it.
We continued moving the beams and didn’t find any more snakes. Even after a shotgun blast, one of copperheads was still intact enough for Dan to skin it; he is tanning the snakeskin and plans to use it to cover his bow. The meat from the same copperhead is in the freezer, and one day we’ll grill it up and see what copperhead tastes like. As for me, relocating the stack of the steel beams cleared the way for my plans to cut down the dead oak tree, but before I do that, I need to go buy a cowboy hat.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish