A Rattlesnake Kill on Little Shuckstack


Down low in the Great Smoky Mountains is
Cades Cove where my wife’s ancestors once lived.
High up above it is Gregory’s Bald, where I
hiked and slept the night as a young Boy Scout.
My very first overnight hike.

And down the far side hovered over Fontana Lake is
Big Shuckstack. There a lookout tower stands tall above
the trees, and rangers gaze out over Sassafras Gap,
Ekaneetlee Creek, Piney Ridge, Proctor Branch, Cheoah
Lake, and Long Hungry Ridge for signs of smoke and
reason to call the fire crew into action.

Lower down still more is Little Shuckstack, the trail so
steep between those two that the knees let you know
right off.

But there on top of little stack is a level stretch
where knees rest, and a rattlesnake might too. Rest there
nearly under some dead leaves about his own color.
Where I hiked alone with thumbs hooked under the
pack straps, just putting one foot in front of the other until
motion caught the corner of the eye, a strange sound
in the ears, and short hairs stood up straight along
the back of the neck as DAMN!
mountain time slowed to frame-by-frame as I
tried to get the legs to MOVE or JUMP or
something, which they finally did.

I landed some distance away.

He was coming after me, NO. He was
watching me, YES.

Back off, he says, I can kill you.

Usually his prey is mice, rats, squirrels, birds, eggs,
lizards, toads, even insects if he has to. Coiled up tight
with his tail raised shaking at one end and his head pointing
fangs at the other. Forked tongue flicking out, eyes shiny
like beads as I felt behind for the hunting knife on my belt.

Maybe throw that knife like Tarzan. Pin his head to the
ground with perfect aim.

Not likely. Or maybe

quick as a cat I could fake him with one hand and then
grab him just behind the head with the other.

A kid like me would think such thoughts, then turn and go
safely looking for a forked stick.

No time to think of animal rights at a time like this.

Approach with the stick as the rattle gets louder and faster,
louder and faster. Just like my heart.

Swipe down there with the stick now. Swing and a miss it was.

Please now, once again for God’s sake and . . . and
THERE . . . got him, pinned down now. Just the head though,
the tail still going strong.

The head is still but the body writhing. My left hand is
going back for the knife as the right hand holds the stick
tight, and tighter.

And now comes the hard part because I must reach down
THERE with him, my bare hand THERE with HIM, and
hope to hell this works as was advised in the book someone
wrote. Someone writing with no snake whatever in sight.

And praise be to God it does work . . . somehow . . . and
the snakes head is OFF, cut clean although the wiggling
snake body doesn’t seem to know it yet.

I should get a merit badge for this, and a big ceremony
too. Mom and Dad both there and proud. What I
thought of in that trembling mountain air where a
snake’s head lay still down there on the ground.

So then I dug and buried that thing as the
Boy Scout manual said to do. Because some
good animal might eat it and get poisoned by that
bad snake.

Animal rights did play some part you see.

And after all those years now gone by, I still have
that rattlesnake’s rattle somewhere in its
proud little box.

It still rattles too.


This story from my youth needs a word of explanation. Although the story is true and I did in fact kill that rattlesnake, I do not now advocate their killing. Rattlesnakes perform important natural functions and pose little threat to humans. Rattlesnake bite deaths in the U.S. average 5-6 per year. With firearms in our own hands we kill ourselves and one another at the rate of 40,000 a year, exceeding the 38,000 deaths in car crashes.

I did not need to kill this snake. All I needed to do was say hello there and goodbye and walk on down the trail. I suppose I believed there was something grown-up and manly in my actions. I thought my father and my friends would see it that way.

I needed to add this explanation. I hope it doesn’t ruin the story for you. I do still have his rattler and wouldn’t think of parting with it.


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