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Snakes on a Plain

3/18/2007

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a four-part story about the March 9-11 Rattlesnake Round-Up in Sweetwater, Texas.

Part III | Part II | Part I | Photo galleries

NORMAN COUNTY, Texas — "I think this is it, right over here," says Dennie Braswell. The 69-year-old snake hunter has descended part of a rocky hill on the plains of west Texas to find an active rattlesnake den that he knows might come with one hitch …

"Dadgum!" he yells. "There are those cotton-pickin' bees!"

The low hum of the bees can't match the telltale electric chatter of the western diamondback rattlesnake's tail. Two of the snakes are sunning themselves as Braswell approaches. One slithers back into the den, while Braswell is able to snare the second with his tongs. In its frustration, it strikes a nearby rock twice.

"Stupid snake," Braswell says as he wangles it into the burlap tote sack.

Out here, rattlesnakes are good news. Bees are not.

Braswell heads back to the truck to don his second-hand bee suit while his hunting partner, Steve Rives, who is 56, arrives from the pair's previous den. He watches from several yards away as Braswell arrives in the white suit to pump gasoline fumes into the slit in the rocks, in an effort to drive out rattlesnakes.

"If the bees swarm, put your head in a cedar," Rives says. "For some reason, it works."

Rives described the time he got stung 102 times when an armadillo went crashing into a hive where Rives was hunting snakes. "They'll sure take the fun out of it," Rives says. "Them bees'll get you bad." He notices that the steel tubing Braswell's using has honey smeared all over its tip.

Then, several bad things happen in succession.

"How are you doin', Dennie?" this writer calls out to Braswell, who looks like a fencer kneeling at the mouth of the den.

"He can't hear you," Rives says. "They sound like gravel hitting that suit." An insect zips near. "Boy, I hope that's a fly buzzing around," the writer says, like a dupe in a horror flick. Then: Bees bees bees! The photographer is the first to realize this and to go charging back up the craggy, rocky, cactusy hill, and in his haste pull along a mesquite branch that thwips back onto the writer's head, making it even harder to hear Rives' voice, fading in the distance:

"Put your head in a ceeedaaaar …!"

By now both writer and photographer are scrambling and swatting at bees real and bees hypothetical, racing along the ridge to the photographer's truck, which, flabbergastingly, has its driver's side window down, allowing the spiteful little devils to perform combat maneuvers inside the cab until the photographer rolls that window up and a rear window down, briefly, so a flailing notebook can shoo all bees out to go pummel Braswell.

Total damage for this sissy hysteria: One stinger lodged in the photographer's jowl. It is tweased out with a pair of pliers and wiped on his dashboard.

Rives is slow behind. He talks for a moment at the truck, then is attacked by some stray bees inside the cab of Braswell's Subaru. He flails with his work gloves at bees that from a few yards away are invisible. It is marginally hilarious.

A few minutes later Braswell appears with a sack of snakes. He stops beside the truck. "Y'all treat me like I have leprosy!" he says from behind his screen mask. He is laughing. Good thing, because the window is staying up. He tells Rives: "There are more snakes in there, but they're not worth foolin' with."

The friends stop at another den and collect another handful of snakes, and it seems like time well-spent, on the side of an improbable mountain overlooking a tableau of trees, hills, deer, fields. But if they've not gathered a hundred pounds of snakes, it's a disappointing day for Rives and Braswell.

Whereas amateur hunters might load up these 15 or so snakes and haul them north a few miles to the Rattlesnake Round-Up in Sweetwater, which is unfolding on this fine March Saturday, Braswell and Rives instead load up the bed of Braswell's little Subaru, passing zebras and bison on their way out of the ranch, and head south a few miles to Bronte, a one-stoplight town of 1,000 people. They dropped off more than 1,600 pounds of live western diamondback rattlers at the Round-Up a day ago, and anyway, they have a place to store these snakes.

Braswell drives past the convenience store, past the senior center and along the town's golf course. He passes through a gateway to a plot of land the color of Mars. Other 20-year-old Subarus, now a parts bank for the one Braswell drives, slouch in the shade. Penned-up coon hounds woof hellos.

Braswell and Rives lug their cage of snakes into a corrugated shed full of long, tall boxes. And it becomes clear why a mere 20 pounds of rattlesnakes doesn't impress these two.

Inside the hay-lined boxes are snakes in piles, snakes in coils, snakes rattling, snakes oozing across one another. The men weigh the snakes and distribute them in the crates according to size. A refrigerator full of plastic jugs of recently expired milk explains how Braswell keeps them alive; an open ledger on a desk nearby attests to the occasional snake business he runs out of here.

"Come here," he tells his visitors. "I want to show you all this."

Braswell steps outside to a rusty stand-up freezer to demonstrate where snakes go when they die. Inside, lining every interior shelf and surface are coiled, frozen snakes, their hides speckled with frost, their vacant eyes gone the color of cream. It's surely one of the most ghastly herpetological exhibits in these snake-infested parts, outside of the public snake skinning at the Round-Up.

A lazy-eyed brown cow wanders over to see about the commotion. Strands of drool sway below her lip. In her face are scattered dozens of orange cactus needles.

Braswell turns from the freezer to greet his cow. "Come here, Gail," he says as he walks to her. He inspects her tenderly. "You've been eating prickly pear."

Part III | Part II | Part I | Photo galleries