Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

Snaking.

Very talkative people always seemed to me to be divided into two classes — those who lie for a purpose and those who lie for the love of lying; and Sam Baxter belonged, with broad impartiality, to both. With him falsehood was not more frequently a means than an end; for he would not only lie without a purpose but at a sacrifice. I heard him once reading a newspaper to a blind aunt, and deliberately falsifying the market reports. The good old lady took it all in with a trustful faith, until he quoted dried apples at fifty cents a yard for unbolted sides; then she arose and disinherited him. Sam seemed to regard the fountain of truth as a stagnant pool, and himself an angel whose business it was to stand by and trouble the waters.

“You know Ben Dean,” said Sam to me one day; “I’m down on that fellow, and I’ll tell you why. In the winter of ’68 he and I were snaking together in the mountains north of the Big Sandy.”

“What do you mean by snaking, Sam?”

“Well, I like that! Why, gathering snakes, to be sure — rattlesnakes for zoological gardens, museums, and side-shows to circuses. This is how it is done: a party of snakers go up to the mountains in the early autumn, with provisions for all winter, and putting up a snakery at some central point, get to work as soon as the torpid season sets in, and before there is much snow. I presume you know that when the nights begin to get cold, the snakes go in under big flat stones, snuggle together, and lie there frozen stiff until the warm days of spring limber them up for business.

“We go about, raise up the rocks, tie the worms into convenient bundles and carry them to the snakery, where, during the snow season, they are assorted, labelled according to quality, and packed away for transportation. Sometimes a single showman will have as many as a dozen snakers in the mountains all winter.

“Ben and I were out, one day, and had gathered a few sheaves of prime ones, when we discovered a broad stone that showed good indications, but we couldn’t raise it. The whole upper part of the mountain seemed to be built mostly upon this one stone. There was nothing to be done but mole it — dig under, you know; so taking the spade I soon widened the hole the creatures had got in at, until it would admit my body. Crawling in, I found a kind of cell in the solid rock, stowed nearly full of beautiful serpents, some of them as long as a man. You would have revelled in those worms! They were neatly disposed about the sides of the cave, an even dozen in each berth, and some odd ones swinging from the ceiling in hammocks, like sailors. By the time I had counted them roughly, as they lay, it was dark, and snowing like the mischief. There was no getting back to head-quarters that night, and there was room for but one of us inside.”

“Inside what, Sam?”

“See here! have you been listening to what I’m telling you, or not? There is no use telling you anything. Perhaps you won’t mind waiting till I get done, and then you can tell something of your own. We drew straws to decide who should sleep inside, and it fell to me. Such luck as that fellow Ben always had drawing straws when I held them! It was sinful! But even inside it was coldish, and I was more than an hour getting asleep. Toward morning, though, I woke, feeling very warm and peaceful. The moon was at full, just rising in the valley below, and, shining in at the hole I’d entered at, it made everything light as day.”

“But, Sam, according to my astronomy a full moon never rises towards morning.”

“Now, who said anything about your astronomy? I’d like to know who is telling this — you or I? Always think you know more than I do — and always swearing it isn’t so — and always taking the words out of my mouth, and — but what’s the use of arguing with you? As I was saying, the snakes began waking about the same time I did; I could hear them turn over on their other sides and sigh. Presently one raised himself up and yawned. He meant well, but it was not the regular thing for an ophidian to do at that season. By-and-by they began to poke their heads up all round, nodding good morning to one another across the room; and pretty soon one saw me lying there and called attention to the fact. Then they all began to crowd to the front and hang out over the sides of the beds in a fringe, to study my habits. I can’t describe the strange spectacle: you would have supposed it was the middle of March and a forward season! There were more worms than I had counted, and they were larger ones than I had thought. And the more they got awake the wider they yawned, and the longer they stretched. The fat fellows in the hammocks above me were in danger of toppling out and breaking their necks every minute.

“Then it went through my mind like a flash what was the matter. Finding it cold outside, Ben had made a roaring fire on the top of the rock, and the heat had deceived the worms into the belief that it was late spring. As I lay there and thought of a full-grown man who hadn’t any better sense than to do such a thing as that, I was mad enough to kill him. I lost confidence in mankind. If I had not stopped up the entrance before lying down, with a big round stone which the heat had swollen so that a hydraulic ram couldn’t have butted it loose, I should have put on my clothes and gone straight home.”

“But, Sam, you said the entrance was open, and the moon shining in.”

“There you go again! Always contradicting — and insinuating that the moon must remain for hours in one position — and saying you’ve heard it told better by some one else — and wanting to fight! I’ve told this story to your brother over at Milk River more than a hundred million times, and he never said a word against it.”

“I believe you, Samuel; for he is deaf as a tombstone.”

“Tell you what to do for him! I know a fellow in Smith’s Valley will cure him in a minute. That fellow has cleaned the deafness all out of Washington County a dozen times. I never knew a case of it that could stand up against him ten seconds. Take three parts of snake-root to a gallon of waggon-grease, and — I’ll go and see if I can find the prescription!”

And Sam was off like a rocket.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31