No one itches for spring like Ellis Ives itches for spring. Just watch him when the mesquite start to bud. For Ellis, spring means only one thing: the Sweetwater Jaycees’ Rattlesnake Roundup. Every second weekend of March, he and his three boys head south to the Nolan County Coliseum in his yearly quest to claim the top spot in one of the official categories. He’s not picky, but he’d really like to bring in either the longest rattler or the most (which is determined by weight, not number). He’s come close a couple of times, but not in quite a while, and now that his sons are all adults now, they’re less gung-ho about helping him than they used to be. Nonetheless, they all love their daddy and would never want to disappoint him, so being the good boys they are, they tag along.
Like all the other regulars, he’s got his favorite places to work dens, but don’t bother asking him where he and his boys head off to on their four-wheelers, because he won’t tell you. If you ask him how he works those dens, though, he’ll be happy to oblige, because it’s not much of a secret—everyone’s been doing it pretty much the exact same way for decades: you go out either in the morning or the evening, and once you locate a good-sized den (that’s the tricky part, of course, and key to it all), you thread your copper tubing to the rear of it and then you pump the gas fumes in, which the snakes hate. From there, you just start stuffing them into your gunny sack as they make their way out. Easy as pie, just as long as you’re wearing Kevlar-reinforced boots and have your spring-loaded tongs at the ready.
It’s not for everybody, though, I suppose. Some people think it’s cruel, but most of those people aren’t from around here. It’s real easy to call the Roundup a “barbaric practice” from the safety of a Manhattan high-rise apartment. All I have to say to those people is this: see if you still feel the same way about those “helpless creatures” after you’ve stepped in the wrong place at the wrong time. See if you still feel the same way once the fiery pain sets in, your foot turns blue because the blood vessels are dying, and your leg swells to twice its normal size.
Something like this is what happened to Cody Ives, Ellis’s firstborn. By the time Ellis figured out that his three-year-old boy had wandered out of the house and into the yard, it was too late. That’s why Ellis does what he does, I’m sure. Back at the Coliseum, after everyone has brought in their hauls to be measured, weighed, and milked of their venom, you should see his eyes as he watches every last one of those diamondbacks get skinned, butchered, breaded in flour, and deep fried. It’s a look that says, “Serves y’all right, you sons of bitches.” He damn near eats his weight in them, too.
Since I’m already on the subject of the Rattlesnake Roundup, this is as good a place as any to mention Lou Ann Saddlewhite. When she was only fifteen, as many pretty young things do, she entered the Miss Snake Charmer pageant. She didn’t expect to win, especially since she was competing against women as old as twenty-two, but win she did. She wasn’t nearly the best-looking contestant that year, but when it came time to decapitate and skin her rattler, she definitely took care of business with exuberance, which always goes a long way with the judges. Afterward, she didn’t even wipe away the blood that had splattered on her cheek. She just kept on smiling. The most that could be said for the rest of the field was that none of them threw up, though they all looked like they wanted to.
Before her big victory, Lou Ann was known for being a quiet girl who most people thought spent too much time in the library. But once she got that tiara, things changed. She started walking differently down the halls, and all the boys at their lockers took notice. She started saying one thing with her smile but another with her eyes. She started disappearing from school after lunch, if not before. Worst of all, she started getting talked about as being a regular out at the old Estes ranch house, which is where the riff raff and the oil field trash drink and fight on the weekends, usually around a cedar bonfire. Some said she got a tattoo of a coiled rattler in a place on her body that only a husband should see. Some said she was the reason one boy stabbed another boy in the eye. Some said she bit the nipple off a third boy who tried to rape her.
By the time that no-account Dickie Nunn got her pregnant (though he denied having anything to do with the thing growing in her), her parents, along with everyone else, had already given up on her. When it came time for her to hand over her crown to the next Miss Snake Charmer, she was nowhere to be found. Some said her parents shipped her off to relatives in Ft. Worth so she could have her baby far from the judging eyes of Yonder (though they denied it), and she simply never returned. Some said Dickie Nunn did her in and then disposed of her pregnant body (though he denied that, too). Some said she hopped onto the westbound Greyhound and ran off to California to become a pornographic film star, but who knows? Regardless, after Lou Ann, enough of the next several Miss Snake Charmers met with mysterious and deadly fates to cause at least a few people to start whispering about a possible curse. Some Yonder mothers have even gone so far as to not let their daughters enter the pageant. I’m waiting to see if anything happens to the little redhead who won it this year. If something does, it’ll be hard to know if a curse is to blame or if she just had it coming. She’s from Birdette, after all, and everyone knows what they say about the girls from Birdette.