just the wind
Monday, after getting a last minute set of environmental comments off to the boss, the heelers and I headed out to run the wing barrels. From what I saw coming through my check stations last weekend, I didn't expect to find a lot of wings. And didn't.
Found four antelope hunters, men from the wife's home state, scouting out a campsite for themselves and their mules. A wonderfully pleasant visit, for I don't know how long.
Found a broken arrowhead, of black jasper, right next to a benchmark that certainly dozens of people must have walked over.
Found a cowboy after lost cows, who expressed a dislike for sage grouse, and anyone who favors them, because they are the excuse given so often when he is forced to use the range in a proper way, a way with an eye to the future, rather than the way it has been grazed for a century or so. But our conversation got almost friendly as we shared our dislike of feral horses.
Found a father and son (who was playing hooky from school classes, but absolutely positively had to get back for football practice) with the son's nice antelope.
Which was not properly tagged.
A fact that I became aware of as I walked to the back of their truck, and spotted the 16-year old frantically but surreptitiously trying to complete the necessary paperwork.
Paperwork that must by law be completed "before leaving the scene of the kill".
After explaining the error, spent almost a half-hour trying to find a game warden. On three different radio towers and the cell. Finally, after getting ahold of the boss, I sent the duo homeward bound with their antelope, with the understanding there would be a warden waiting at their door. (He called... a $110 mistake, and the father didn't even blink.)
Found the dreaded construction zone, with up to four pilot car sections in series, is now down to just one and took less than 15 minutes to pass through.
So, what to do with the extra time before dark?
Well, there's three or four benchmarks along the route home I'd like to find. All within 40 meters of the road, a minimal delay.
Or I could look for snakes.
Snakes or benchmarks? Not enough time to do both. Snakes or benchmarks?
Snakes, of course.
It was evening before we reached the den hill, and I left the heelers in the truck. And began the hike up, in the cool northeasterly breeze. Winter's coming. Anybody out is going to be nestled down in the sunlight on the leeward side. I am relieved not to see any recent vehicle tracks on the steep road up to the rocks, and am almost careless as I stroll up to the pit.
Sneak up to the pit, staying low and watching for any surprises. And for once, I see rattlers before they see me. A green and tan mass in the corner, catching the last of the sun. Got to take a couple blurry pictures without any warning buzzes.
No buzzes at all.
I see the bright candy-coloured shotgun casings laying the rocks. More than the usual amount.
And walk calmly directly to the pit.
No frantic buzzes, no hisses of surprise or anger, no rough scraping of scales on rocks.
Silence, and the smell of death. The two large green and brown snakes are just carcasses now, their front ends obliterated and mingled in a swollen mass of scales, bones and shotgun wads. The rocks above them peppered with the dusky stains from lead shot.
Close range. Their killers are getting brave. And not even bothering to take the rattles as souvenirs. This is slaughter for the sake of slaughter. A willful intent to exterminate this population of nearly-harmless herps.
A dead youngster on the shelf on the right. And the remains of another down in the main crevice. The frontless mass of one of the gorgeous, burgundy-brown juveniles in the front of the pit.
For the first time ever, I step down into the pit. No one there to object any more. I think I hear a faint buzzing from deep in the cracks. Of a small rattle, to be sure, but it isn't just the wind.
The northeast side of the hill is in shadow as I climb up, seeing how far the vermin got this time.
Just about Nine-Button's hole I find a stretched out carcass, someone caught out on a ledge, just as I caught one once before. The front destroyed beyond recognition of life, much less of a rattlesnake, but the tail's intact. Nine buttons.
No, it's not her. The buttons are too narrow, the snake too small. Someone in mid-life, not a matriarch. And besides, I'm pretty sure she was taken and killed last fall. To the left is another dead young rattler, in the place where they tore apart the rocks themselves to get to the snakes. One button. Lived long enough to shed once. There is another deep within a crack above, but it doesn't respond to a thrown pebble. Dead? Or cold? I don't know.
It's getting dark, I feel cold. I head back down the red hogback, ignoring the hyper heelers as we drive out of the hills, back to the highway. And the next wing barrel.
So, the final tally? Three adult snakes, all dead. Five juvenile rattlers, also all dead. One near-newborn, dead, too.
Maybe one survivor.
Or maybe it was just the wind.
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