When the rattler bit Tom, our great mule
whinnied in terror and his legs began shaking
into a death dance as he fought going down
and my big brother Ronnie and I slid off his
back, and he killed the snake. We had ridden
Tom down to our back forty to pick a gunny
sack of fresh green corn at our acreage
on the Carolina side of the Savannah River.
Finally Tom was on the ground and let me
stroke his neck as I waited in a death watch
while Ronnie walked the mile to our house
and Tom was still having spasms when he
returned with our hired man, two shovels
and a small pistol. When he pointed the gun
at Tom’s brow, I turned away and jumped
as he fired; then the men began digging
at the near edge of the field.
Back at home, Ronnie nailed the snake through
its battered head to our beech tree in the back
yard, then using a sharp blade, he carefully cut
a red necklace around the snake’s neck
and with mouse-nose pliers, peeled off its skin.
After a good scrubbing and a day in the sun
the skin was dry enough for him to begin rubbing
and working it with cotton seed oil until it was
soft and pliable, so he could slide it onto his belt
and wear it off to war in the South Pacific; but I
could never climb that bloodied beech again.