Buck, My Brother Ned and the Snake
Mama says I’m lucky ‘cause most boys wouldn’t want a little brother tagging along with them. But Ned, he’s fourteen, takes me fishing with him down at the magic pond. Ned named it the magic pond because we don’t ever go that we don’t bring home a mess of fish for Mama.
One summer day we hiked down to the woods and set up on the bank. Ned was under the trees and he sent me on around to find me a spot. It was quiet except for some crows in the pine trees and the buzzing of mosquitoes around my ears.
I could see that Ned was pulling in bluegill wide as your hand. I was gettin’ my share, too. We strung ‘em on a line and dropped them in the water at Ned’s feet. We had caught five or six fish when all of a sudden, I heard Ned holler.
“Hey! There’s a damn snake eatin’ up the fish.”
“What?” I wasn’t sure I heard him right.
“A snake! He’s just swirling around here chasing these fish we already caught. Look here.”
I pulled in my line and trotted over to where Ned was standing right down close to the dark water. No grass or stickups along the edge here. It was clean. The spike on the end of our red fishing line stuck deep in the ground near Ned’s feet. Fish flashed silver as they tried in vain to swim away from the reptile nibbling at their bodies.
“Sure enough. That’s a snake,” I said bending to see more clearly.
“Course it’s a snake, Jack. Now what am I supposed to do? We don’t have a bucket to put the fish in. We won’t have a fish left if we don’t get rid of this thing.”
We? I didn’t know what Ned planned, but I knew I wasn’t going to go messin’ with a snake. Mama had always told me that if I saw a snake I was to turn around and head in the opposite direction.
In South Georgia where the summers are long and hot, the grass grows fast and all kinds of reptiles make their home there. We grew up knowing to watch out where we put our feet. One time we had a gator come around, but he disappeared after awhile. Ned said he thinks Daddy shot it.
I used to collect turtles. When I was little, I had all kinds in my room. One day I saw the daddy of ‘em all. Man, that critter must of been seventy-five pounds or more, and he looked prehistoric. I saw him crawling across our yard, moving fast. In fact, this fellow was in a big hurry, and when Buck saw him and started barking and running around and around him, that old terrapin with a head like a dinosaur, put up a fight. He didn’t pull back and close up in his shell. That head, I’ll never forget it, was big as a man’s two fists, and he had a mouth like an eagle’s beak, sharp looking.
His legs were maybe a foot long, and his webbed feet were big as a saucer. But that didn’t stop old Buck. He kept going around and around, and that old turtle kept turning, too, facing Buck all the time, his mouth open like he wanted to rip the dog’s head off.
Mama came out when she heard the barking, saw what was going on, and called Buck off. She said that old critter was on his way to somewhere special, and we should let him go.
“They don’t just wander around. They know where they want to go, and they’ll get there sooner or later.” Mama knew about all the creatures that lived on our place.
Sure enough, when the dog stopped snapping and barking, the monster turtle started back on his trip, going straight north, until he was out of sight.
Now, at the magic pond, Ned had started throwing sticks at the snake that was eating our fish, chasing it away for the moment. That didn’t do much good because he’d come right back and start nibbling again. I figured Ned would think of something to do about the snake. He’s smart about nature and wild things.
Sometimes he asks me questions about things I thought he already knew. Like how many months in a year and how far away is the moon. I can answer most of what he wants to know because I read all the time. Ned hates to read. He hates to go to school, too. But he can pick off a bird in flight with a shotgun, and bring down a deer every year in hunting season. He can make a camp out of nothing but what you find in the woods. He knows all about that kind of thing.
Right now, messing with that snake, he was not being very smart. Ned got madder and madder, and I told him, “Why don’t we just take the fish and go on home ‘cause we have enough for supper.” But Ned wouldn’t have it.
“I’m not gonna let a stupid snake run me off,” he said, and began looking around for a forked stick. He’d seen a man take a forked stick and put it right behind the snake’s head, pinning it down till he could pick it up. I don’t know what he thought he’d do with the snake once he did catch it.
I went back to my fishing spot and threw out my line. Ned kept mumbling, but I couldn’t hear him all that well.
Next thing you know, I heard him yell, like he was in trouble, and I heard Buck bark. I threw down my pole and ran. I could see Ned holding his wrist. He was cussin’ and hollering, “Sic ‘em Buck. Kill that som’ bitch, kill him.”
Old Buck was all over that snake like maggots on a dead possum. He shook and shook it, and then he’d drop it, and before the snake could strike, he’d grab a-hold of it again.
“Did he get you, Ned? Did he bite you?” I tried to get a better look at Ned’s arm. “We’d better get home. Gotta get you some help.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Ned asked. “What do you do for a snake bite, Jack?”
I thought a second, and I remembered what I’d read in a book.
“Wrap a tourniquet around your arm. We need something to wrap around your arm, Ned.
I tore off my tee shirt and tied it around my older brother’s arm just above his elbow.
“Come on. Let’s get going.”
I turned to see what Buck had done to the snake. It was chewed up pretty good. I called, “Come on, Buck. You killed it. Come on.”
We didn’t bother with our poles or the fish. We took off through the tall grass till we were out of the woods, and then hit the dirt trail to the house. Ned kept crying and saying, “I’m gonna’ die. I’m gonna’ die.”
“Hurry up, Ned. Stop crying. You ain’t gonna’ die if we get home in time for Mama to get you to the doctor.”
Well, Ned got really sick and had to stay in the hospital. Mama said it was a cottonmouth that bit him. They are one of the most poisonous water snakes. Mama said the doctor told her it was good she got Ned to the hospital as quick as she did. And he said putting on the tourniquet was the right thing to do. I had to grin when Mama patted me on the shoulder and told me that.
“You saved your brother’s life, Jack,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”
We were so concerned about Ned that nobody looked at Buck until later that night. Out on the porch, Daddy found fang marks on Buck’s shoulder. The cotton mouth got in at least one bite before our brave dog killed it. I could tell by Daddy’s voice that things didn’t look good for Buck.
Mama had never let Buck into the house. He was a farm dog, and he waded in the pond, and got muddy, but Mama said the worst part was when Buck found a fresh pile of cow manure. He rolled in it. He came home green, she said, and that proved she was right not to let him in her house. Buck was like a boy run amuck, Mama said, and she couldn’t abide a misbehaving child. But I could tell, Mama loved Buck just like she loved me and Ned.
I remembered when Buck was just a puppy and how much fun we had playing with him. I remembered how Buck waited with us for the school bus to come and how he was waiting for us when we got home. He’d run around and around us, Ned and me, and he’d bark like crazy as we walked to the house.
Buck was breathing hard, stretched out on his side, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. Daddy shook his head and looked at Mama. She told Daddy, “Bring him inside.” Mama laid a blanket on the floor in the kitchen. Daddy laid Buck down and ran his hand over the dog’s head.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for old Buck, Son.” Daddy said to me.
I wanted to stay with him all night, but Mama told me to go on to bed.
The next morning when I got up I hurried to see Buck, but he had died during the night. Daddy buried him, wrapped in Mama’s blanket, out behind the barn under a pecan tree. I helped put the dirt over the grave, and I didn’t cry the whole time. But when we got through, I went to my room and I bawled.
After the snake incident, Mama bought a book that shows all the poisonous snakes in South Georgia. I read it and I studied the pictures, but Ned wouldn’t look at it. I handed it to him when he came home from the hospital, and he took it and threw it across the room. I don’t know who Ned was mad at, me or the snake, but he acted like he wanted to hit something or somebody.
Daddy said Ned was mighty lucky. I never heard Ned mention Buck, but after our dog died, my brother wouldn’t have anything to do with me. He didn’t go fishing, and he never asked me to do anything with him. He called me a snot-nose kid. One day I yelled at him, “I wish I hadn’t saved your life.” But I didn’t mean it.
I knew it was Ned’s fault that Buck got bit by the snake, but I never said it. So what if he was a good shot and a woodsman, he was also foolish and stubborn. He had ruined everything, and I think he knew it. If he hadn’t messed with that snake, Buck would still be here, and Ned and I could be fishing on the bank of the magic pond pulling in bream for Mama.
Glenda Beall’s writing is published in journals, magazines and anthologies. She is a member of the North Carolina Writers' Network. She administers two blogs, Writers Circle and Writing Life Stories and teaches writing at her home studio. Glenda’s poetry chapbook, Now Might as Well be Then, was published by Finishing Line Press.