Looks like it’s that time of year again. My brother and I were out cruising the South Texas brush in our Bronco looking for turkeys. Of course there are no turkeys in South Texas but it sounds better than just driving and drinking beer.
“Hey D.R., pull over.”
As was inevitable, we had to stop to take a leak every so often and raid the Yeti again. My bro was standing in some tall grass near a wet drainage spot when all of a sudden, I swear, he hopped up and ran across the top of that foot tall grass – with his hands still in his pants! Then I heard it. That sickening buzz of Mr. Rattler! I was laughing my butt off as my bro was shakily trying to get his zipper back up. That’s when we heard the second buzz go off not too far to our left. My laughter went silent as we both quickly jumped back into the Bronco. With a little inside juggling we got the Yeti jockeyed around so it could be opened without getting out of the front seat.
As I drove along, we noticed all the strange horizontal skid marks across the road. Then up ahead we saw a big rattler slither across the road for what seemed like forever. I say it was a rattler because I don’t think there are any anacondas near Laredo. Another one came out in the road and I sped-up to squash it with the front tire but all I got was a snake bit tire. My bro and I are pretty macho hombres and would never think of wasting $15 on a pair of snake leggings, so we decided to just stay in the Bronco the rest of the day. I did try to shoot one big rattler in the head from the window at 20 feet with a .300 Weatherby. Do you know what a rattler’s head looks like at 20 feet looking through a scope set on the 6.5 power setting? A brownish blur, that’s what. After 3 misses I quit, after all, those Weatherby shells are $5 a pop.
When we got back to camp, we tip-toed all around looking under everything before settling down in a couple of lawn chairs. As we were finishing off the last of the beer we got some serious man talk going on.
“Damn, those snakes were everywhere today. I ain’t going back out unless I can find a suit of armor to wear” I said in disgust.
My bro, who has always been the brains of the outfit, said in a calm, professor-like tone “Those rattlers are worth a lot of money. You can milk their mouths for poison and some folks eat the meat. They say it is a delicacy that tastes like the best chicken you ever had. Don’t forget the hides either. You can skin ‘em and make a coat out of them.”
“Don’t you mean a belt?”
My bro fired back “Yeah, whatever. The point being, if we can figure out how to herd or catch those snakes we’ve got a gold mine on our hands. Heck, we might even make enough money to pay for this here expensive deer lease!”
That really got me thinking. Is there really enough money in rattle snakes to pay for a hunting lease? Heck, that’s better than trying to sell coyote hides, which I really hate to skin. I’ve watched rattle snake round ups on the National Geographic channel, but I thought it was just a bunch of crazy prospector-looking guys poking around the desert for kicks. For sure, we were in the middle of rattle snake country right here. I promised myself that I was going to find out what it would take to join the lucrative rattle snake business.
Back home I begin my serious investigation on snake wrangling by going to see Uncle Albert. Now Uncle Albert is not really our uncle but he knows pretty near everybody and is a self-proclaimed expert on pretty much everything. He has never steered me wrong yet (I’m not counting the skunk incident, which was not entirely his fault, but that’s another story).
“Heck yes rattle snakes can make a man rich! Do you know what they give you at the hospital if you get bit by one? They give you a shot of medicine made from the rattler’s venom itself. It’s complicated, but it’s like taking another drink when you have a really bad hang-over. Fixes you right up and will save your life!”
This sounded reasonable and his excitement was kind of contagious. “Do you know how much the hospital charges for one of those anti-venom shots?” he asked. “Thousands, that’s what. All you got to do is catch a bunch of snakes, feed ‘em and milk ‘em like you would cows, just more carefully.”
I really liked this talk of a lot of money for what sounded like a little bit of work. “I’d be doing it myself except for the bad shakes in my left hand. You have to be very careful and steady milking ‘em. Fellas like you and your brother will do just fine.”
This all sounded great but I was still a bit confused. “Uncle Albert, I hate to sound dumb, but just how do you milk a rattler? Also, once you get a container full of venom where do you sell it? How do you get a hold of a rattler so he lets you milk him?”
Uncle Albert was quick to say “Like I said, with the shakes and all, I haven’t done it lately. You need to talk to Freddy Flash who makes his livin’ as a professional snake wrangler. I have to go by the post office today to get my check and I’ll see him there ‘cause his check comes on the same day as mine every month. I’ll tell him you’re comin’ by. He’ll be glad to see ya, as that he is always complaining that no one ever drops by to visit. Now Freddy’s real name is Fredrick Klash but the few folks that know him call him Freddy Flash for some reason.”
Uncle Albert continued, “You go down the main highway maybe 8 or 9 miles until you start seeing all those big rock cropping’s. There on the right is a gate that is opened and has been that way so long it’s falling apart. Go down a couple miles past a gravel pit and there up against the boulders is a trailer with a wood porch running alongside the full length. Freddy can seem a bit fidgety, but he’s a good guy. He’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
A few days later I went out to my mail box and there along with the usual junk stuff was a PEC bill, water bill and a credit card bill for all the stuff I bought on-line when Cabela’s had their big sale. My wife Vanna was already chewing on me about how low the bank account was getting. That was it. Next thing I knew I was heading out to see Freddy so I could get some easy cash flowing!
I found the turn off, just like Uncle Albert said, but when I got past the gravel pit the road split. Of course I took the wrong branch and ended up at a big stock tank. I marked this location in my head for future reference. It looked like a real good fishing hole with fish poppin’ bugs off the surface right and left.
Instead of turning the truck around, I continued down the back road thinking that surely there was a back way to Freddy’s. But after driving around a while, I eventually just wound up back at the gravel pit. I still don’t see how that ever could have happened with my keen sense of direction, so it just added the first surprise in the looking for Freddy trip. I remember hearing about worm-holes in space on the Discovery channel and I just chuckled to myself thinking maybe I went through one of those.
Moving on, I took the opposite fork this time and sure enough, about a mile further, I found Freddy’s trailer. It was not exactly what I expected but it was just like Uncle Albert said. The trailer was one of those all metal types with rounded top and corners with rivets all around, but in a bit of rough shape. The covered porch ran full length and was really nice and well kept. There was a nice, solid skirt running from the ground up all around. It just seemed the porch was so nice it didn’t fit the house. There were chairs, a table and a hanging bench swing. It looked like a very inviting spot to have a beer on a warm evening while watching the sun go down. There was no yard to speak of and no trash or junk sitting around. Just Freddy’s old truck parked on a crushed gravel driveway. Really pretty nice.
I’m still stunned by what happened next. When I replay it in my mind it is in slow motion, but in reality, it all happened in the blink of an eye. I walked up the porch steps to the front door and just as I swung my hand back to knock I heard the sound of the rattler and saw the huge snake just 2 feet away from my leg. He was coiled up, head pulled back like an arrow on a bow string ready to strike! Simultaneously, the door jerked open and a voice yelled “Rufus, get in your bed”. I was frozen and stunned, startled into confusion by the abrupt door opening, a yelling man and a rattler aimed at my leg!
But the snake immediately stopped rattling, uncoiled and slithered away behind the chairs. Boy was I glad I had taken a leak before walking up to the door!
Freddy said “You must be D.R. Uncle Albert said you might be coming by.” He could tell I was speechless and visibly shaken. “Come over here and sit down. Pay Rufus no mind; he’s my pet guard snake. Can I get ya’ a cup of Joe?”
I sat down on the hanging swing and looked down at the end of the porch. There was that big rattler slithering into a round bed next to a bowl that said “RUFUS”. There was a rubber mouse, a ball and some kind of bone lying nearby. I gulped a couple of times just taking it all in.
Freddy, talking really fast, said “Are you sure you don’t want a cup of coffee? I grind the beans myself and add some special stuff of my own recipe that makes it extra strong. I just made a fresh pot too.”
I stammered a bit but trying not to offend said, “No thank you. It’s a little late in the afternoon for coffee, at least for me.” What I really needed right then was a stiff drink!
Ol’ Freddy is not really a big guy, just kind of thin and lanky. He wore a long sleeved dress shirt with the cuffs tight at the wrist because his arms were too long for the sleeves. The shirt front was covered with coffee stains. On top of his head was a green John Deere cap that covered his dusty brown hair which stuck out all around. He had sort of big bug eyes that seem to dart around as he talked. He couldn’t seem to sit still in his chair either, sort of like a 5 year old in church. He’d slumped down and then sat up straight. He kept crossing and uncrossing his legs and sliding his hands back and forth on the chair arms. Yeah, Uncle Albert was right, the guy did fidget some.
All his movements were quick and unpredictable. He even talked fast. With coffee mug in hand he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes, tapping a cigarette out as he retrieved them. It was so fast it caught me off guard. He said “You want a smoke?” I said no thanks and what happened next really made me blink twice. Somehow, he flipped the cigarette into his mouth, grabbed a kitchen match out of his jeans, struck it on his pants leg or finger nail as he brought it up, lit the cigarette and flicked it away before the match head stopped sputtering! He never put the coffee mug down either. That’s when it hit me; this guy was doing everything at double speed – literally in a flash! Yes, he was really Freddy Flash!
“I hear you want to become a snake wrangler. You’re a smart man. Get yourself a bunch of rattlers and feed ‘em, milk ‘em and count the cash. That how I got this place” he said with great pride. “Did you know, you only have to feed a rattler every 2 or 3 weeks, but you can milk ‘em every other day? Yeah, a pretty sweet set-up!”
I was beginning to settle down some, but this guy and this place were making me a bit nervous. As usual though, my curiosity kept me talking. I continued to keep one eye on Rufus though.
“Well what do you feed them?” I asked.
With a big puff of smoke Freddy said “Meat. You gots to feed ‘em meat to get good venom. I give ‘em mostly live mice and rats and sometimes a few toads.”
As I let that set in, I looked around and asked the next question. “Where do you get those?”
Freddy asked “Do you know Bobcat Bob that lives on the other side of Baby Head? He brings me a big crate of ‘em every couple of weeks. I pay two cents a mouse and three cents a rat. He sneaks a few toads in trying to cheat me, but little does he know the snakes like ‘em just as much as rats. I don’t know where Bob gets ‘em and I never asked.”
“I can’t say that I know this Bobcat fellow, but thanks for the tip.”
Now I’m an accomplished outdoorsman and I’ve put all kinds of disgusting things on hooks as well as skinned a number of undesirable critters, but just the thought of a giant crate of wiggling, rolling mice and rats was beginning to give me the creeps.
I continued on “I know you don’t really milk a rattler, you extract the poison from their mouth. Just how do you go about doing that?”
Freddy took a swig of coffee, put his cigarette in his mouth, leaned over and held his hand out pointing at my shirt pocket and said “Let me borrow your pen a minute”.
It was a simple request but I hesitated a second because I was surprised by the gesture. Reluctantly I handed it over to Freddy because he started snapping his fingers at me when I was slow to act.
Freddy put his coffee mug down and in a lightening-like move, reached behind the chair next to him and pulled out a 3 foot long rattle snake that started to thrash and rattle wildly. At that point I hopped completely up on the swinging bench seat. Freddy spoke to the snake and said “Oh, shut up. I’m not gonna hurt ya’.”
Looking at me standing on the far end of the bench he said “I don’t know where this youngster came from. He may have just wandered in or maybe he managed to get loose somehow.” He was smiling and half laughing when he told me to sit down. “Don’t worry, I got a good grip on him.” He let the snake stretch out and he rotated it around studying it a little better and he corrected himself. “Oh, I mean her. I just want to teach you something. See where I grabbed her. Up tight against the head. If you grab ‘em too far back and give ‘em too much neck, they can still turn around and bite you. That’s an important lesson to learn. Now here is how you milk one.”
He squeezed the back of the snake’s jaws slightly and her mouth opened wide. He took my pen, put it across her mouth hooking it behind the fangs and then folded them down and out.
“Now you put a little pressure with two fingers just behind the head and now watch”.
Sure enough 6 or 8 drops of amber venom came out of each fang. Shaking the poison out on the porch Freddy said “That is all there is to it. Of course you would normally be catching that in a jar and not wasting it. Now watch this. It is very important to learn how to drop a snake. Let the body stretch out and you swing it away from you so the weight of the body pulls the head away from you when you let go. If there is any slack or wiggling when you toss ‘em away, they’ll bite ya’ while in mid-air.”
He slung the snake off the porch just like he said and was taking a swig from his coffee mug before that snake hit the ground. Freddy wiped the pen off on his shirt sleeve and then tried to hand it back to me.
I said “Just keep it. I have another one at home.”
“Well, thank you kindly. It looks like a nice one.” He quickly slipped it into his pocket next to the Lucky Strikes.
By now I was really nervous. I was kneeling on the bench swing trying to be as far away from the porch floor as possible. Also, I didn’t see where the rattler that Freddy threw off the porch landed and now I was worried about how I was going to get back to my truck. Also, I swear ol’ Rufus was watching my every move with that little black tongue constantly whipping in and out.
Freddy said he needed another refill and did I want some. I thanked him but asked if he had something stronger, like whisky. I thought it might steady me a bit. Freddy said “Sure thing. Do you want me to put it in a cup of coffee?” I replied “No, just straight please.” Freddy ducked in and out of the house in a flash and brought me back a Mason jar about a third full of Old Crow. I immediately gulped about half of it down. That shot burned all the way, but it did have some steadying effect. I looked at what was left of my drink in the jar, which made me ask “Just how do you store your venom?”
Freddy quickly replied “I keep it in Mason jars stored in the fridge. It’s important to seal the lids real tight. I stored an opened jar one time and it ruined all my cheese. Made it taste real funny.”
I looked at what was left of my drink and I thought to myself surely he washes his jars. I told myself, what the heck and gulped the rest down because I needed it. Meanwhile Freddy was enjoying his fresh cup of coffee and he had suddenly somehow, started a fresh cigarette.
With a bit of renewed courage I said “Freddy, I’ve noticed you keep a pretty tidy place here. Everything is very neat with no boxes or cages sitting around. Just where do you keep your stable of milking snakes?”
This question at first made Freddy smile, which then turned into a little laugh. He jumped up and said “I keep ‘em under this here porch!”
At this point he began stomping his boots as he yelled out “Wake up rattle babies, wake up!” Freddy was wide-eyed and dancing around in a circle stomping while laughing and yelling like a crazed Indian.
The sound I heard can only be described as someone violently raking dead leaves. It seemed like a thousand rattlers were buzzing at the same time. That was not the worst thing though. I could feel bumps coming up from underneath the floor, shaking the whole porch. When Freddy had turned all the way around, I was gone. He looked up and heard me start my truck and wheel away in a cloud of dust.
He was yelling out “Hey come back! I’ll make a fresh pot!”
I thought to myself, who’s the flash now