“If a man looks to have been drinking, steer clear of em, Jenner. You hear?” Auntie’s eyes were sharp and clear. I had never seen them any other way. I nodded at her reflection in the rearview mirror. My younger sister was curled in the foot well behind Auntie’s seat, her boots kicked off on my side. I had to shuffle my feet around them every time the wiggles struck. We shared the road with shiny trailers towed behind wood-paneled station wagons and rust-patina trucks with rifles stuffed into racks across the rear window. We moved together along the flat, dry Okeene prairie toward hills that had cupped the rising moon since before there were rattlesnakes to hunt.
Auntie steered her Taurus into a dusty lot past a small collection of faded green canvas tents. We woke my sister and pulled on her boots, even though it was hot and she cried.
“You’ll get bit,” Auntie said, “and that’ll be the end of it.”
I pulled on my grandfather’s waders, the toes stuffed with two pairs of balled-up dress socks. My feet pricked with sweat, and I looked up into the cloudless blue sky and let the heat press down on my eyes.
The old woman beneath the canvas tent tousled my hair and clicked her tongue at my sister. She took my five dollars and handed me a thick burlap sack and a long metal tube with a squeeze handle that activated a pair of tongs at the other end. As she turned away, her smile wrenched up into a scowl. She wiped at her brow with a dirty handkerchief.
“Come with me, son,” said a tall man. He wore a hat with a braided leather headband, dark with honest sweat near his dusky forehead.
“Go on,” said Auntie. “Bring us back a big one, Jenner.”
“That’s a fine name, son,” said the man. I stepped close to him and sniffed the air for whiskey. I turned toward my aunt and blinked twice. She nodded and led my sister toward a wooden gate that opened into a compassed field where vendors were setting up popcorn machines, rattlesnake belt buckles, chopping blocks stained with old blood. Dust scooped up around them, and I turned back to the man.
An air horn sounded. We walked into the hills in small groups. I stayed close to the man, and a father and son followed close behind. They’d driven all the way from Laredo. The boy was my age, about to start seventh grade for the second time, and the father kept reminding him not to act as dumb as he looked. The father didn’t smell like whiskey or beer, but he looked like both. Red lines ran like tributaries down his nose and emptied into the flabby white ponds of his cheeks.
We walked on dark red soil bound by swatches of dry prairie grass, moving between gray punctuations of rock like pencils tracing a dot-to-dot. The man in the hat would stop and slide his hand beneath a rock slowly, the dirt making no sound as he lifted the rock and waited, lifted, waited again. Each time there was nothing beneath the rock but quiet red dirt.
“It’s about time, don’t you think,” said the father after a while. The son studied the ground like he wanted to burrow down into it, dig his clean white hands into the dirt until his nails broke and the hole was deep enough for his dumb body. At each outcropping, the father grew more impatient, his face reddening with sun and contempt.
“Ain’t you even going to answer me,” the father said at the next pile of gray rocks.
The man in the hat stared at him until the father looked away. The son was watching and the father saw him watching. We walked on and I flexed the tongs of the metal pole against the pale blue sky.
“Keep that snake catcher pointed down,” said the man. He put his hand on my shoulder.
We stopped and he pointed to a rock tucked into a shallow depression against the hillside. He moved a finger to his lips.
“Maybe all this quiet ain’t working,” said the father.
The son opened his mouth to speak just as the father kicked the rock aside with his sneaker. The snake was the color of the earth. His head parted the thick, hot air with something older than anger. Just like that, the father was bit. The man in the hat pinned it with his snake catcher, then turned the writhing switch toward me. I opened the sack with both hands and the snake disappeared inside. I spun the burlap in hurried circles to close it.
“You can’t walk back,” the man in the hat told the father. “It’ll pump to your heart and you’ll be dead before the bottom of the hill.” The father was sitting on the ground, his ankle already bulging. He turned and vomited onto the dry earth, spattering red dust across his outstretched hand. The son stared at the burlap bag that buzzed with hollow bits of keratin.
“It’ll get worse,” said the man. He tucked his thumb and forefinger into his mouth and blew a sharp whistle. “We’ll bear you down,” he said. Then he turned to me and said quietly, “You can carry the snake that bit him back to the roundup.”
I looked at the son’s hands, at the soft pinkness of each finger. His nails were bitten down to the quick, the skin furrowed and raw. The snake shifted in the sack, and the boy flinched. I turned back to the creosote gaze of the man and said, “I think he should carry it, mister.”
The man in the hat smiled. I stretched the burlap bag toward the boy. His eyes flashed with tears, and he dragged his sleeve across his face and took the sack. The two of us walked down the hill toward the gathering crowd. He carried the bag with great reverence beneath the unmoving sky, and every time the snake buzzed in the sack, his face simpered.
Jad Josey resides on the central coast of California with his wife and three children. By day, he manages a company that specializes in keeping VW campers on the road. He crams his writing life into every available nook and cranny of time, and sometimes the nooks are small and the crannies narrow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Palooka Magazine, The Bookends Review, Crack the Spine, and others. Find him on twitter at @jadjosey.