Hunger was already a problem. Ethel considered herself as good as dead. That didn't mean she had to be uncomfortable in the meantime, or roll over and die, for that matter. She'd had enough sitting around and suffering, dodging the sun and the cougar that was surely still around. She'd seen the cat only the one night, a day and a half ago. But she doubted it was gone. Forget the cat. Maybe it would ease her suffering in the end with a quick death. On this morning, she had a purpose in mind, and that was to hunt some food. She had a certain food in mind, too.
Snake signs were abundant enough to inspire hope. Slitherings were in the dust and mud, wherever there were mouse droppings under bushes and rocks.
Ethel had already spent the night whittling some sticks next to a small fire. Thank God for my trusty pocketknife! she thought. She had a forked stick, barely longer than her arm, and a sharp stick almost the same length. They weren't ideal, but they were the longest she could find in a desert where big trees were scarce.
She was lucky, really. The small watering hole had dwindled down to seven feet in diameter, but it was deep enough, perennial enough, to support a small cottonwood tree on its downstream bank. The cottonwood also provided food and shelter for insects, birds, mice and snakes. Eattie wouldn't have to go far for this hunt, she reckoned. Another lucky thing.
She crawled out of her stone stoop before the sun came over the canyon. Rocks still felt cold to her hands. That was good. Tracks from the night activity were still fresh in the sand. That sand would be parched and formless by midday, as the waterhole receded a little more.
She hobbled over to the cottonwood. The blanket of decaying bark and leaves piled on the ground probably concealed any number of creatures. She looked at the debris for several minutes. Where would I hide during the day to sleep off a mousey meal if I were a snake? she thought.
The most promising nooks were farthest from Ethel's reach. There were a few burrows in the shallow topsoil, where tree roots intersected rocks that were covered in twigs and leaves.
She jabbed the sharp stick into the nearest hole. Jah!
She waded through the woody detritus to a slightly more promising site. Her heart was pounding. If she were lucky, she would find a snake. And if she were really lucky, she would kill it. Any mission that begins with finding a little monster is enough to squeeze the adrenal glands. Ethel was too excited at first. Her movements were spastic. She flipped over a rock and jerked away out of reflex. Good thing there wasn't a snake under it.
Whew! I'm not quite ready for this, she thought.
Her mind felt slow and unfocused. She squatted on her knees until her heart slowed down. That's when she saw it.
Call me Indiana Jones, that's a snake temple, she thought.
It was a snake temple. A web of tree roots in the dirt supported a square block of sandstone the size of two cinderblocks. A square hole entered along one side where the rock butted into a bigger rock.
She took her time crawling over to it, trying not to rustle too many leaves or bang the ground. She approached from the opposite side of the main hole. A secondary entrance faced her, but she had to get at the rock somehow. She studied the lay of the land again. Once things started, they would happen fast.
I'll pull the block toward me. Hopefully it will block this smaller hole.
If a critter escaped when the roof came off, it would have to go straight up and over, or dash off to the right, still in her general direction. Large rocks impeded the other escapes. That could be good or bad, depending on her reflexes and whatever might come out of the hole.
She exhaled and stood up, keeping her weight over the good leg. She put both sticks in her right hand. She needed both hands to pry up the rock, with her knee pressing down on its outside edge, but she didn't want to put the sticks down for a second. She leaned onto her knee, wriggled her fingertips into place around the fractured stone, and heaved. The block budged like a tooth that had a long way to go before it came out. She heaved again. The crack at her fingers pulled open the slightest bit. Dirt crumbled from the fissure and spilled into the burrow.
There was a lazy rattle that accelerated into a brief, angry buzz. A familiar sound. Ethel jerked back but remained on her knee. Her heart raced again, but this time she remained focused. She had what she was looking for. She took a long break to let the buzz calm down, and her pulse, too.
Here goes –
She heaved once more, this time with all her power. The block barely wiggled. She continued to strain. She was about to give up when it toppled loose onto her thigh. It hurt about like she thought it would. Adrenaline kicked in and helped her jolt upright on her good leg, without thinking. She took the forked stick in her left hand as she stood.
Sure enough, a small- to medium-sized rattlesnake flicked its tongue at her from its coil. It was still cold and waking up. Moving slow. Shah! Her left hand jabbed the forked stick at the snake's neck as soon as she locked her gaze on the head.
The body writhed behind the stick that pinned it the dirt. The jaw flexed in futility. But something else moved.
There was another snake under the first one!
She got lucky again – in spite of her surprise, her left hand remained anchored on the stick with the first snake's head. She swatted the second head with her sharp stick as it emerged from the squirming pile of scales. The second snake darted to the right. It seemed more interested in getting away while the getting was good. She let it go, but kept her eye on it, thumping after its tail for good measure as it slithered off into the woodpile.
Lucky, she thought, turning her attention back to her prey. I am definitely lucky today.
The snake was perhaps a bit more than two feet long. It still rattled its tail but its squirming had calmed down, as if losing hope. She thought of a fish flopping on the beach, desperate for water, eventually giving up the fight as its brain died. She still had to be extremely careful.
Better finish this job no matter what comes next, she thought, ramming the sharp stick through the head with a savage stab. The body snapped around, but the jaws only pulsed the slightest bit with the stick pinning them down.
Convinced she had the snake pinned well, Ethel moved both sticks into her left hand. She kept pressure on them and pulled out her pocketknife.
The two-and-a-half-inch blade made slow progress. The smooth, scaly skin was hard to cut at first. She caught herself on the verge of gagging.
It wasn't pretty. She knew it wouldn't be. Killing rarely is. The skin tore open. Guts hemorrhaged, and the body writhed evermore as juices wet the dirt. At last, the little blade cut through the last shred of flesh that kept the head on the body.
She let go of the sticks and pulled the body away from the wet pit of death. Hopefully she wouldn't contaminate the meat with any venom that might be in that mix around the head, which still pulsed.
She'd never eaten a snake before, but she had killed plenty of them on the ranch. It was no surprise that the body kept moving for almost an hour after it had been killed.
Ethel spent the rest of the day preparing a good fire pit to cook her game, then took a nap in the shade. By evening, she'd skinned and gutted the snake while the fire died down into a hot bed of coals. She draped the fillets of tough, white meat over a spit. It wasn't gourmet by a long shot. The spit fell apart several times. The meat ended up burned, or dry and rubbery, or damn near raw in some bites. She assured herself, as she chewed, that she had rinsed the body well enough to avoid ingesting the venom.
My first hot meal in days. This tastes good. Good! I say, she told herself, trying to picture it like chicken in her mouth. Truth was, it did taste good on a level of survival. It tasted like ... victory.
Once she got past the texture and swallowed, her stomach craved more, as if her whole body was saying, Yes! Yes! Yes!
She bedded down feeling a spark of optimism. Maybe I'll hunt that other snake tomorrow, she thought.
Then something stirred just beyond her feet where she was lying down. Her eyes snapped open. She sat up. Embers from the fire where still winking at the stars, a pit of orange and black heat crackling in the stillness. Then she heard it again. There was some rustling where she left the snake skin. She leaned in, all her senses keen.
Ah! Mice. Picking at the skin of their former predator, she smiled at the thought.
The tiny rodents scurried away when she crawled over. She picked up the skin that had peeled off the snake's body like sheet of sticky paper from a lint roller. She dangled it in front of her nose for a moment, contemplating what to do with it.
No more use for this, I suppose, unless I want to make a pair of boots after this, she grinned.
How strange to make jokes to herself when she was merely fortunate to live another day. It was just another way to cope.
She got up on her good leg and hurled the skin as far down the streambed as she could. The motion was familiar. She flashed back to throwing the snake over the fence as a kid. From now on I'll be lucky if they don't flee before I get to them, she thought, grinning again.
Little could she realize that a large and dangerous snake was hunting her at that very moment. She was more worried about a mountain lion lurking in the rocks.