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Kings of the wild frontier



My wife and I have lived in the middle of fields and forests for 40 years now. We know the patterns of the sun and the moon, the light and the dark, the sounds of the animals and the weather. We listen for the spring peepers and the distant howls of coyotes, the wake-up calls of roosters down the road and the insistent clucking of a hen needing her favorite nest to lay an egg.

But the most frightening sound this summer has been the middle-of-the-night bark of our loyal, protective dog, Gus. The deep, growly voice of our part black lab, part mastiff means only one thing: He's cornered a snake. The more fierce his bark, the more dangerous the situation.

"You hear that, right?" my wife said, turning on a bedroom light. Once you start to mess with a snake, you have to see the story to its end. If it's a black snake, you have to catch it and move it far away. If it's a copperhead, you have to kill it. After so many decades out here, I know it will only reappear under the house or behind a nest.

Gus's loud bark meant he had a copperhead in a standoff in the driveway. But my dependable, hooked snake stick was way over in the chicken coop, and all the shovels were stowed in the garden sheds. I had to grab something fast to cut off the snake's escape, to protect our home and dog.

Gus agreed: As I emerged through the back door with a hammer, he turned his head, saw me coming and lunged, protectively, one last time at the snake. The snake struck back, biting him on his thick, furry neck. I smashed the snake's head with the hammer.

Back inside, my wife gave Gus lots of love and a little Benadryl to help with the swelling. Our sweet dog was very shaken, and we had a very hard time going back to sleep. Back in bed, I determined that I needed a better weapon. The hammer was blunt enough, but the snake could have easily reached my wrist or ankle if Gus hadn't been there.

In North Carolina, copperheads seem to be social. They hang out together, and there's never just one. That's what we discovered a few days later and again a day or two after that. Gus and I ended up dispatching three copperheads in 10 days. Everywhere I walk now, I see reptiles. I saw a Gila monster in the leaves—or so I thought. Not really, but does it matter? I was freaked out. My wife sees copperheads where she used to see pine branches on the ground. They're still pine twigs.

It's been a few weeks now. We're all much calmer. The way Gus sprawls in the driveway to face the sun, he's seemingly forgotten the whole thing. But my wife bought me a present, hanging it on a hook by the back door—a flat-nosed garden shovel.

I thanked her and added those famous last words: "I think we got 'em all."

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