Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 21, 2010

Ken Ellis of Batesville almost stepped on this cottonmouth after dragging his fishing boat to shore early this week. “I almost did a Ray Poole,” Ellis said. He spotted the stick he was holding that was cut down by a beaver and used it to dispatch the snake. Photo provided

Snake catches a ride on the lawn mower

By Robert Hitt Neill

I was cutting the yard the other day, and since it was clouding up pretty good in the west, I was hurrying as I got to the short rows, so to speak.  It was a hot late afternoon, although I had on only shorts, but I reached for my water bottle as I hit a straight stretch of the front yard heading toward the Swimming Hole.  I was lifting it to take a swig as I hit a patch of clover – out of which darted, just in front of the mower, a five-foot chicken snake.

Having been struck three times by poisonous snakes, I’ve developed almost an instant recognition for the snakes we have down here, and our rule at Brownspur is that we terminate quickly the poisonous kind, but the non-poisonous are allowed to live – they keep down the mice & rats around the house, is the theory. However, a five-foot non-poisonous snake will make you hurt yourself when it appears suddenly close by, so they are generally either terminated or removed to another location – like, Tennessee, or somewhere.

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Therefore even though this was a chicken snake, he was a BIG chicken snake, so the latter applied, and he was directly in front of a speeding 42-inch-cut riding mower.  And since my right hand held a water bottle almost to my lips, with both the throttle and mower clutch on my right side, this particular snake looked to be a goner.  He might have had a chance if he had tried a snakey sprint to one side, but he had chosen a straight-ahead path.  “Sorry ‘bout that, Buddy,” I muttered, as his head disappeared beneath the hood.

But suddenly, a new hood ornament appeared, sticking up about a foot over the hood.  An observation here: on a Poulan mower, the hot muffler & exhaust is right up front, over the axle.  The snake head that appeared, looking right at me, had its mouth open, with a look that I’ve only seen once before in my life.         When I was at Ole Miss, I went home with a buddy one weekend to New Albany, and whatever we had plans for that Saturday after breakfast were delayed by his mother’s edict: “Tom, mow the back yard before y’all leave the house.”

They owned an electric push mower. Tom plugged that sucker in and went after that small back yard, while his mother and I talked in the kitchen.  Tom was sure in a hurry. Suddenly the lights dimmed, and we arose to look out the window.  Tom had managed to mow back across the cord, and he was holding onto the handles, hair sticking straight out, yelling, “YIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!!”

His mom quickly unplugged the cord from the socket, and my buddy simply wilted in the yard. Took his hair two weeks to comb back down.

Snakes ain’t bad to yell, but this chicken snake had exactly that same Tom-like expression on his face, less than three feet from me.  Then he seemed to be pulled down inexorably, again disappearing from my view.  Still holding my unswigged water bottle, I glanced downward to the right, expecting to see bloody chunks of snake being ejected from the mower blades.

Then I felt a strong tug on my left ankle.

Casting an eye back to the left, I beheld that chicken snake swarming up my leg, using it as an anchor to pull his hind end out of those sharp swirling blades. As I watched (what else could I do?) he wrapped three times between my ankle and knee, raised his head outside of my leg as he whipped around my thigh, and shot straight by my left hip, hooking around the back corner of the seat, then sliding to safety in the mown grass behind us, without a pause. All this happened in “One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three,” and I observed that the last six inches of snake was tattered and bloody, but still attached to the other four and a half feet.

I finally got my swig of water, replaced the bottle in the holder, and whipped the mower around to pursue the snake, which led me on a wild chase round and around an oak tree, where he finally took refuge between the roots in a hole.   

No, I didn’t. Betsy was not pleased when I confessed, but I figured he’d earned another shot. At least I’ve marked him, for future recognition!