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We're lost when we leave our cities. Those of us born and raised there don't know how to function when we find ourselves in the "natural" world that's so large and strange to us. Things aren't made to our scale out there. The space seems limitless. Rules apply there that man didn't make, and they aren't written; they're learned from experience. That's sometimes a painful processs—sometimes a lethal one.
I learned that shortly after moving in midwinter to a town named Parker, Colo., about 25 miles southeast of Denver. My wife and I were going to try to breed and raise thoroughbred horses, while I worked as a supervisor in a catalogue house to help make ends meet. So we leased a little spread, with a modest house, a barn and a quarter section of land. A quarter section is 160 acres, which, if it were in a square parcel, would measure a half mile on a side. It was, to me, a lot of land.
The surprises that nature gave us were pleasant at first: Watching a herd of mule deer move slowly up a draw at the bottom of the hill my house was on, the does in the lead. Seeing an owl fly like a giant butterfly through a silent, snow-spangled night. Listening to the coyotes bicker at 5 a.m. over something they had caught. Heading for the barn one morning and finding a herd of antelope grazing in the pasture. I felt as though I had returned to Eden and was a new Adam, naming the animals as I found them. I thought it was fun.
Around St. Patrick's Day, we had a spell of weather that was sweet and warm beyond believing. As I would find out later, Denver doesn't really have a spring as I knew it, but this was a beautiful and premature imitation. We took advantage of it by saddling up and going for a nice ride.
The first thing I noticed when we got back to the house was a very loud, high-pitched noise. It sounded like gas or steam escaping under pressure. It seemed to be coming from the basement. I opened the outside door to the cellar. We had two dogs, which we kept in the basement whenever we'd leave. Normally, they would tumble out of the doorway as soon as it was opened. They didn't. They stuck their heads around the corner at the bottom and then retreated out of sight.
I started down the cellar stairs, mentally tabulating what it was going to cost to get someone this far out into the country to fix a broken line. My suspicions about the cause of the sibilant noise were rapidly approaching confirmation as I reached the bottom of the steps. I'd pinpointed the sound as coming from the water heater, but as I turned toward the heater, I didn't see any escaping steam or water. The dogs came up to me excitedly, and then ran back toward the water heater, and in that instant I saw what was making the sound.
There on the floor next to the heater was a prairie rattlesnake, coiled and rattling, ready to strike. The dogs seemed all set to go for him when I yelled for them to stay. I don't know if I'd ever yelled that loud before in my life. They backed off and I chased them up the stairs. Adam had a new animal to name. It wasn't as much fun as before.
I ran back upstairs and slammed the door shut as though the snake were coming up the stairs. "There's a damn rattlesnake down there," I said to my wife. Then, as if someone had given me instructions, I headed for the barn.
"Where are you going?" she asked me.
"To get a hoe."