The scaled head hung, inhumanly still, and the tongue slashed the air again.
My mind was racing while I tried to keep my body locked completely motionless.
How big is it? I thought, while trying to stay level-headed enough to judge its length and girth. During one of the moments when the snake’s rattle was unmoving, I counted half a dozen rattle lobes on the tail. The snake’s main body was thicker than my upper arm, and I’d guess it was longer than I was tall. That made it an old snake, which meant it might strike to try and make me flee, as opposed to strike to try to inject poison and kill. That meant I might survive even if it struck. Considering that it would likely attack my face or neck, and could blind me or damage a neck artery or vein even if it didn’t release venom, I was not very relieved.
My low mass was a serious handicap. At a little over sixty kilos, a lot of that bone, rattlesnake poison could kill me when it would just make a much bigger person very ill. Full-grown adults rarely died from a bite. Children commonly did. I didn’t like my chances with a bite. Not in the slightest.
I heard Anu stepping back as I had asked, but didn’t dare turn my head to look. The snake might misread any movement from me as an attack. I was hoping that it would flee.
Other than the tip of its tail, the snake remained motionless, poised to strike.
I locked myself in place, refusing to move a muscle, not even blinking as I tried to use what I knew about rattlesnakes to put myself in its place. Considering the situation, I doubted it would flee. I was too close. It hadn’t seen my right hand, fortunately, or it might have struck reflexively at the small, warm target. My head, upper torso, and outstretched left arm were clearly visible to it, and would indicate that I was a target too large to eat. Because I was big enough to be a real threat, it wouldn’t leave its striking posture while I was too close for it to flee from safely. Getting away without the snake striking was entirely up to me.
Anu spoke, clearly afraid, and not really understanding what was happening. “Can… can I do something?”
No, you can’t, I thought. Not when I’m this close.
“O. o. no.” I managed, without moving my jaw. The first two attempts were clumsy, but on the third try, I managed an ‘n’ sound without moving my mouth or jaw.
Please, please don’t try to help without knowing what you’re doing, I thought to myself, foolishly hoping she could somehow read my mind.
I tensed up a little bit, preparing to push myself slowly away. If I moved smoothly, without any sudden motion, the snake would probably let me back away. The farther away I got from it, the less likely it would be to strike.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Hoss staring at me from about ten meters away where the blackberries were. I hadn’t given any commands, but it was clear he’d picked up on the snake after it started to rattle, or possibly my fear scent, since the whole area probably smelled like snake. Hoss’s head shifted towards Anu, and I heard him snuffle again. Then he grunted a single high-pitched attention grunt to alert the rest of the sounder.
I started panicking inside while still trying to stay as still as possible. All of the rest of the swine immediately stopped what they were doing after Hoss’ attention grunt, and after sniffing around for a moment they all started moving towards me with occasional attention grunts of their own. Exactly as I’d taught them to do. They had scented the snake, decided it was close, and were moving to me. Even Speedy, who I hadn’t trained to react to predator scents yet, was copying the others as they ambled in my direction.
The snake would feel the ground vibrations of the approaching swine, which would put it even more on edge.
I started to move. Slowly. It was a balancing act, a deadly, slow race. Every centimeter farther away from the snake that I could manage meant it was a little less likely to strike. Every step closer the swine got, the more agitated the snake would get, since I was too close to it for it to feel comfortable retreating. If I moved too fast, it would strike because it thought I was attacking. If I moved too slow, it would strike to try to force me to move away.
My right arm started shaking and I locked down the muscles with panicked desperation.
Anu spoke again, and I ignored her. I couldn’t afford to pay attention to her. The snake was, at that point, around three decimeters from me; the swine were about five meters away.
The distance between us at that point meant nothing if it chose to strike. A human couldn’t react fast enough to reliably block a rattlesnake strike, and their accurate striking range was about half their body length, or at least a meter for this snake. Even if I started to bring my hand up to protect my face before the snake started to strike, the snake would be able to change its target from my upper body or head to my hand or arm faster than I could possibly react. Millions of years of evolution catching rats, rabbits, and other small animals had made rattlesnakes inhumanly accurate.
It would probably have been safer for me to let it strike my head or neck than show it my hand and arm and invite a strike. Rattlesnakes were so hardwired in their reactions that a snake’s disembodied head would try to strike a warm target for minutes after decapitation. Seeing a small, warm target appear would almost certainly lead to venom injection because my hand was the size of several different types of prey animals.
After another few seconds of slowly backing away, my head was about half a meter from the snake and my left hand holding the axe was held in front of me, at chest level. My legs were tightly drawn up under me, and my right arm was at full extension for balance, my hand gripping the side of the stone.
The swine were standing around the base of the long flat stone that I was crouched on, snuffling in confusion. I should have been giving them commands at that point, and they knew it.
By that point, I could only see the head and raised tail of the rattlesnake, and it could only see my head and maybe my neck. Still, it was giving no signs of trying to retreat. The swine couldn’t be seen from where it was, but it had certainly detected them, both by vibration and by scent. It would stay exactly where it was, prepared to strike until something changed.
The forked tongue slashed out again, several times in rapid succession, and the rattle sounded, seemingly louder. I felt that I would have to continue to move slowly away, and do it soon.
At that point, I started to slowly lean to my right, and then, unexpectedly, one of my swine goosed me lightly from behind with its snout, gently reminding me that I hadn’t given it a treat as a reward for returning to me after scenting a predator. The unexpected impact of the nose against the small of my back sent a huge jolt of adrenaline rushing through my system.
The jolt of adrenaline while I was so intently focused on the snake led me to act. Before I realized that the snake had not attacked, I was already starting to throw myself sideways by pulling hard against the right side of the rock slab with my right arm, and extending my legs. I also started to twist my left wrist as hard as I could while pushing down with my left hand at the same time.
The rattle stopped as the snake reacted as well, with unbelievable speed; hardwired perceptions likely reacted to my rapid sideways movement as the possible beginning of a flanking attack. The only reason I saw the snake start to strike was because I thought it had already started to strike. I had been so keyed up to act that when the swine bumped me, I had acted first. Without the bump, if it had attacked, the snake would probably have been able to strike me before I was able to begin to react.
At that point I was pushing as hard as I could, putting all of my arm and shoulder strength into my left arm and wrist, dredging up every possible bit of strength and speed I could manage. While I was straining to push with my left arm and hand, I was straining to pull with my right and push with my legs. Even though I hadn’t believed I’d be able to react to the snake’s potential attack, I’d still planned what I would do if the snake struck – and it was striking.
Time seemed to slow down and I watched the snake’s head streak through the air, straight towards my face, accelerating as the curves of its body straightened. As it closed the gap between us, the mouth seemed to expand impossibly. It felt like a nightmare, when something terrible would happen that you couldn’t stop, but it would happen slowly enough that you had plenty of time to be even more terrified.
Slowly, so slowly, I saw the bottom of the axe handle start to appear in my peripheral vision. The length of hickory was also accelerating rapidly, but not as rapidly as the rattlesnake’s head.
I watched the snake’s head start to twist to my right as the jaws widened even more hugely and the fangs extended. In a completely useless moment of terrified but clear thought, I realized it was probably striking for my nose. I pushed harder with my left arm, in a panic, and heard the crack of rock on rock as the axe head struck the slab. The hickory shaft whipped forward in much more dramatic acceleration as I felt my wrist begin to twist and tighten painfully. At that point, pain was the least of my worries, so I ignored it and pushed harder.
The rattlesnake was no more than a hand’s width from my face when the axe handle struck it, about a decimeter behind its head. The hickory handle dragged the body of the snake away from me, to my right, while the head and last few centimeters of the snake tried to compensate and finish the strike that it had started, continuing to reach towards me like the arm of a man falling from a roof.
The mouth snapped shut bare centimeters from my nose as the axe handle finally took up all the slack in the snake’s body and started to draw the snake’s head farther away from my face. My wrist, twisted too far and continuing to twist farther with the forces I’d applied to it, reflexively released its grip on the axe’s handle, and my leap continued.
I watched the axe handle, still rotating rapidly, drag the snake bodily through the air like a floating ribbon struck by a broom handle. The rattlesnake’s body curled into a ‘u’ shape around the handle as it was forced away from me.
My jump continued. My right hand had long since left the stone slab and my legs were at about half extension; the swine around me were starting to react to my jump, stiffening and lowering the front halves of their bodies as they prepared to scatter.
The world seemed to speed up again, and there was a chaotic explosion of pain and squeals as I bowled over two of the smaller sows, wrenching a shoulder as I struck the ground.
Anu screamed, swine squealed around me in a panic, and I shielded my head with my right arm as I struggled to push myself up quickly with my left. Being on the ground amongst any sort of panicked hooved animals was extremely bad. I was probably more panicked than the swine.
My left wrist collapsed in pain and I flopped back against the ground, striking my head and seeing stars for a moment, stunned. When I was able to think again, all I could see clearly was the legs and flanks of other swine. That, and Hoss, who had his snout pushed up close to my waist, sniffing at the swine treat bag. I wrapped both hands around my head and flopped over onto my stomach bumping several swine out of my way as I forced myself to knees and elbows. A hoof pressed hard on the back of my right calf and I yelled in pain. Something grabbed me by the neck and I felt myself being lifted bodily off the ground.
At first, I thought Hoss or Bigboy had decided to grab onto my shirt and drag me somewhere which was rather frightening. If a two-hundred-plus kilo swine stepped on me while trying to drag me, it would be very, very bad. Worse was the idea that something so close to my flesh would be in their mouths. I wouldn’t make good material for bedding, which was about the only thing that came out of a swine’s mouth after going in. I swung my arm behind me to hit them with an elbow, hoping make them let loose, even at the risk of angering them.
As I continued to be lifted into the air Anu said “Stop it Allen, It’s me, Anu! Don’t hit me.”
I stopped struggling, shocked at the human voice. I slowly realized that Anu had walked into the middle of the swine, and bodily lifted me out. My heels dragged across the backs of a couple sows as she shifted her grip, releasing her right hand from my collar and wrapping it around my chest before taking more rapid steps. The swine followed us closely.
“Allen, did the snake bite you? Why were the pigs attacking you? Are you OK? Can you talk? Talk to me!” She was in a near panic.
“Stop. Set me down. They weren’t attacking me.” I tried to get my feet under me to stand, but couldn’t. “Anu. Stop.”
Anu said nothing and kept dragging me backwards at a near run, and I couldn’t get my feet under me. Before I could decide to start struggling again, she stopped. I got my footing as she let me go with her right arm but kept her left hand on my collar, as if she were worried I’d fall again, which was probably a good idea.
I carefully turned to face her, trying to avoid putting weight on the painful right leg, and saw her straightening up with her axe held in her right hand and a very determined, dangerous look on her face. I took a step back and nearly fell over as my right leg tried to collapse with a spike of pain.
Anu took two steps forward and put herself between the swine and me, holding the axe in both hands like she was about to cut wood.
Straightening myself to be more upright with a twinge, I grabbed her arm, partly for balance and partly to jerk her a little towards me, which barely budged her at all. For some strange reason my mind picked that moment to note, she might be more massive than Edward.
I tried to project calmness, but probably didn’t manage it very well, based on the worried look she gave me. “Wait. They didn’t attack me. You don’t have to protect me. Calm down.” The swine were inching closer and starting to flank us to either side, clearly extremely confused. There was a human between them and me, and I hadn’t given them a treat yet. They were probably smelling Anu’s fear as well as my own.
And where is that snake! I suddenly thought.
“Whoah!” I called out, loudly, and the swine all stopped moving. I should have done that when I’d found myself in the middle of them, but had been too panicked to think about it.
Anu shook me off her left arm with a shrug that almost threw me to the ground again. She put both hands on the axe again and didn’t relax at all. “They were stepping on you and not letting you stand up.”
“They are obeying commands now. They only stepped on me once. They were confused. I jumped away from the snake. I can explain it all in a minute or two.” I stopped and looked towards the slab. “Where is the snake?” I stepped toward Anu and put my hand on her axe. “Give me the axe. Everything is OK now.”
Anu looked at the now-unmoving swine, looked at me, and gave me control of the axe, before saying, in a worried tone, “I hope you’re right.”
“Thank you.” I replied as I collected her axe. “Stay by the swine. I’m grabbing one of the spears and finding that snake.”
Anu’s eyes got much bigger and her mouth dropped open slightly before snapping shut. “You’re going to try to find it after running away from it? Are you crazy?”
“No, not crazy.” I said as I carefully scanned the ground while painfully yet rapidly limping towards the load of cut saplings.
I grabbed the thick end of a sapling in the pile that the boars had been hauling, and jerked it out. Then I dropped Anu’s axe onto the grass and carefully scanned the ground along the long pile of stone, while walking towards the slab where the snake had been.
As I got within about four meters, I saw the snake. It had apparently overextended and fallen over the slab, or perhaps been dragged over to this side of the stones by the blow I’d struck it with the handle of the axe.
Slapping the ground around it with the thin end of the sapling made the snake react to my presence. It started to rear its head back and coil up. There was no sound of a rattle, but that didn’t mean anything that I trusted, because rattlesnakes could lose their rattles. I poked at the snake a couple more times with the three-meter-long sapling, and watched its reaction. Only the quarter meter of the snake closest to its head was moving at all, and about half of that length seemed to be moving only because of what the head and the first decimeter of the body behind the head were doing. Apparently, I’d broken its back with the axe handle.
I flipped the sapling around and used the heavy end to drag the snake bit by bit out of the rocks, carefully keeping at least a meter’s distance from the head at all times. At that distance, I could see the kink in the body where the axe handle had struck it. The snake struck repeatedly at the thick end of the sapling, accomplishing nothing other than the loss of its fangs.
“Allen, what are you doing?” Anu complained in a frightened voice, from where she’d walked away from the swine and picked up her axe that I had dropped.
“The snake’s back is broken. I’m pulling it away from the rocks now. In a minute, I’ll hold its head down with the sapling while you chop its head off.”
There was a clatter as Anu’s axe hit the pavement. “What?” She said in a small voice.
I sighed to myself, and said, in what I hoped to be a confident voice without any sarcasm. “Never mind.”
It took a little longer, and I had to be a lot more careful because I didn’t fully trust my right leg or my left wrist, but I eventually pulled the snake out, away from the rocks, found my own axe, and trapped the snake’s head with the sapling. I carefully walked on the sapling out towards the snake and chopped its head off, only a few centimeters behind the skull. Then I chopped the snake into short lengths, none longer than my hand.
Anu had watched until I raised my axe, and then turned her back on the scene without saying anything to me. In my peripheral vision, I saw her shoulders twitch every time my axe struck the body of the snake.
If she hadn’t very possibly kept me from being crippled, I’d be angry right now, I thought, looking down at the snake’s head that I was carefully holding away from my body. If I had stumbled and fallen while next to the snake, it could have bitten me. It could still bite me for a couple minutes because snake reflexes and muscle could function without blood circulation for several minutes.
I needed to bring the head to Doctor Sten. I wasn’t sure if he might be able to do something with the venom without medical facilities, if the snake hadn’t used it all striking at the sapling. Thinking about that, and not knowing if contact with skin could have a bad effect, I dropped my axe and threw the sapling into the woods. Then I wiped both my hands and the axe handle on the grass and then my pants, carefully, one hand always carefully holding the snake’s head, which had stopped bleeding but was still occasionally twitching.
It was getting darker, the elefants were trumpeting again as a return-to-camp signal, and the swine were sullenly staring at me, treatless, from where I’d frozen them with the whoah command a couple minutes before. I limped up to Anu and she turned to face me with a grimace as her eyes drew down to the snake’s head now in my left hand. It was clear that she didn’t approve.
Setting the snake’s head and my axe down next to the travois, I said, “Its back was broken, Anu, and I’ve still got to feed the swine.” I didn’t tell her that I would have killed it anyway, that almost anything I could catch in the woods fed the family or fed the swine. I left porcupines and skunks alone.
Pulling my whistle out of the pouch, I blew a short blow, and pointed at the headless, chopped-up corpse of the rattlesnake, then said. “Snake.”
Ten well-trained swine recognized a food word and rushed over to their much-larger-than-normal treat. Speedy followed them, quickly joining in as she heard eating noises.
I carefully sat, over a meter from the snake’s head, favoring my left wrist. After seating myself I slowly, carefully probed my calf and checked for blood on my ankle while waiting for the swine to finish eating the snake. Fortunately, even though it hurt like mad, there was no blood, and it didn’t feel like either bone in my calf was broken. My wrist just felt like I’d sprained it. I decided I still needed Doctor Sten to ask him to take a look at it, since I didn’t have Granpa, Pa, or Ma to check it. As I watched, waiting for the swine to finish, every now and then I’d hear the sound of the snake’s rattle.
Speedy pulled something away from the rest of the feeding swine and worried it a little, almost like a dog with a bone, chewing on it and pushing it into the ground with rapid playful movements of her snout. There were occasional rattles, so it was pretty obvious what she was playing with. She was young enough that she still played fairly regularly, and full enough at the time to actually appear a bit rounded. After a couple pokes with her snout, she lifted her head into the air a bit and shook her new toy back and forth a couple times, vigorously. The rattlesnake rattle sounded loudly, tktktktktk, and several of the other swine turned rapidly to face Speedy, making attention grunts.
Unable to help myself, I laughed loudly. The swine all turned to stare at me, briefly. When there was no command from me, the larger swine turned back to the serious business of eating. Speedy, stared at me a little longer, with the last six inches of the snake’s tail sticking out of the side of her mouth. She shook her head, making the tail rattle some more before she dropped it and poked it a couple more times with her snout. Finally, she picked the tail up again, shook it one more time, and swallowed it before waddling back to where the others were still eating.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Anu shift her weight from leg to leg. I looked up at her and saw her staring at the swine with a concerned look. “Allen, they really aren’t very adorable anymore.” She said, in a sad voice.
It was certainly a good thing that it was too dark for her to see the blood that would be liberally painted along their jaws. There would be streaks along their flanks above their front legs from where they had pushed bloody jowls against each other as they jockeyed for positions as the snake was eaten. I reached up my right hand and she reflexively reached down to give me a hand up without taking her eyes off the swine.
After standing, I ignored the pain in my right leg as I spoke in a slow, careful tone. “Our swine are smarter than farm pigs, and smarter than horses or cows too. We’ve bred them for intelligence for thousands of years. I’d say they are smarter than dogs, but Marza doesn’t agree with me.” I paused, thinking. “Her border collies are really smart, I have to admit.”
I paused again, realizing I had drifted off topic. Anu was looking towards me, but not enough towards me that she stopped looking towards my sounder. The swine were now rooting up the grass where the snake had been, grunting deep grunts of pleasure as they greedily consumed the blood-soaked turf. “At the end of the day, Anu, they’re still swine.”
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