I could have tried shooting the snake, but I realized that a stray bullet offered all kinds of potential hazards. The snake was more or less in a corner and a rifle shot could ricochet off a wall with dire effect to the water heater or even myself. I would somehow have to kill the snake without shooting it, and the hoe seemed like my best bet.
A phrase came to mind that we'd used in the service to describe a crisis situation: gut check. At the time this was happening, though, I didn't consider it to be a test of courage. I only wanted it to be over.
Hoe in hand, I reopened the basement door with dread. The noise was still going on. As I went downstairs all kinds of doubts went through my mind. I was about to attempt something that was totally outside my experience. Nothing had ever happened in my life to prepare me for a moment like this. I had no idea if I would succeed, but I had to. As far as I knew, the only way to get the snake out of my basement was for me to kill it and take it out. I reached the bottom of the stairs hoping it was all a bad dream, and the snake wouldn't be there. He was there. At that moment I was filled with an overwhelming wish to be somewhere else, anywhere else. If sheer mental effort could transport a man, I'd have been gone.
I raised the hoe and slowly moved toward the snake. I had to kill it, but I didn't know how to begin. I could see its eyes watching me, and behind its head a blur, which was its tail. The sound was indescribable, echoing off the concrete, like the chirr of locusts on a summer night.
I pushed the hoe in its face, tentatively, the way a boxer jabs at an opponent in the early rounds to measure him. I didn't know what the hell I was doing; I just felt that I had to do something. The snake wasn't impressed. It struck at the hoe. Successfully. As I pulled it back I could see the venom dripping down the blade.
At that instant of fumbling and frustration, the training of forgotten years suddenly paid off. In desperation, my brain went back to boot camp—Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. I recalled fighting with pugil sticks at bayonet practice. I hadn't distinguished myself at that activity, but I had new motivation. I struck a stance that was probably ridiculous, but who was watching? I raised the hoe overhead and brought it down in the middle of the snake. At the same time, I let out a yell that would've made a DI proud. The hoe connected somewhere in the snake's midsection. It stretched out from its coiled position, and I yelled and struck again. I think at this time I was reacting as much from fear as anything else. I don't know how many more times I hit it. When I was done it was dead.
I felt triumphant. I was victorious, not so much over the snake as over circumstances that only moments before had overwhelmed me. But even in my euphoria, I found it odd that the noise persisted, seemingly as loud as before. As I went back upstairs I vaguely recalled an old wives' tale about rattlesnakes—after you kill one its tail keeps going until sundown. It didn't make sense, but I was new to such mysteries. I informed my wife of the demise of our guest. I think I probably swaggered a bit as I headed toward the barn to put the hoe away.
Before I got there, I met Dean, my landlord, standing at the pasture gate. "Dean," I said, "how long does it take for a rattlesnake's tail to stop going after he's dead?"
"Why, did you kill one?"