ANDY & THE SNAKE
David W. Toll
The new Harrah's Hotel was one of four or five buildings that rose up out of Reno's grimy brick downtown like bright porcelain teeth in a mouthful of rotting stumps. I had begun talking with the man beside me, a tall, stiff jointed cowpuncher, half beer-drunk and staring mildly about him out of china-blue eyes. He was headed back from his sister's funeral in Salinas to the lonesome Monitor Valley ranch where he was working. While he waited for the bus that would take him the next leg of the way home, he passed the time by telling me about Andy and the snake.
Jiggs is where it happened; south of Elko about 35 miles in a little dimple at the base of the Ruby Mountains called Mound Valley. Jiggs has changed considerably since Andy ran the saloon there, but it is still about as far as you can get in this world from L.A.
Back in the 1860s and '70s when Mound Valley was first settled, the road from Elko to Eureka was swarming with wagons hauling ore north from the Eureka mines and south again hauling goods and provisions from the railhead at Elko. The little settlement that grew up around the stagecoach station and freighting depot was called Dry Creek at first, then Mound Valley, then Hylton and then Skelton. At the height of its development the place had a block-long business street and maybe 20 or 30 houses; the slight slur of wickedness that attached to its name back before the turn of the century came from holding dances on Sunday.
The Eureka & Palisade Railroad was built through the next valley west to connect the Eureka mines with the main line of the S.P. and the wagon traffic stopped, nothing much happened in Jiggs except the inevitable withering away. When Andy came there the place was only a post office and a saloon.
Andy was a Spaniard, a Basque from one of the Pyrenees mountain provinces that have furnished sheepherders to the western rangelands of the United States since the 1870s.
No one now remembers exactly how or when Andy came to Nevada, but it's a safe bet he was working with one of the big bands of sheep that still move with the seasons between the mountains and valleys along the state's southeastern border. In any event, he turned up in Ely, moved to Elko for six years after that, and then he took over the saloon at Jiggs.
He was a short, stocky, homely man, unruly, hard drinking and absolutely hopeless with business. His bookkeeping was jumbled and his credit had long lapsed with the Elko wholesalers. When he needed stock he had to co cash in hand to get it. If there was any cash left over after loading the liquor, he'd leave everything where it stood and go off on a spree. Two or three days later, when his money was gone, he'd stumble back to where he'd left his supplies. As often as not the liquor had been stolen while he was off drinking, and Andy would have to go back out to Jiggs empty-handed and sweat it out until he got a few dollars ahead. When one of the valley's ranchers came in for a drink Andy was out of, he'd explain what had happened with a mixture of sheepishness and outrage and the cowman would laugh and take whatever Andy had on hand.
The fact is, the men out in Mound Valley thought Andy was a pretty good old boy. If he had a high-spirited crowd on a payday, he'd put in a call to one of the houses in Elko and have a couple of girls brought out. That was probably Andy's best stroke as an entrepreneur—that and the fact that any man in the valley had good credit with Andy. The men out there who remember Andy will tell you he'd give a fellow the shirt off his back. Oh, yes, the women will sniff, if you didn't care how clean it was.
It's true that he only changed his clothes when it was convenient, and he didn't shave every day, and his floor was likely to be gummy with spilled liquor. The women out there didn't care for Andy at all but he didn't mind. He had come out to the farthest edge of things to be left alone to run his place the way he wanted, and if he made enough to get along he was satisfied.
And he was generous. Drifters, the untethered men who chanced along the lonely road on their restless way to nowhere, could get a bunk and a little work from Andy. There was a long procession of these men, and now and then a woman. Red was one who stayed a few months, and an old wrangler named Shannon, and a tall, curly-headed man named Lloyd Lancaster who had a job cutting fenceposts in the juniper-tufted foothills off toward Eureka.
Lloyd was a little like Andy in that he had a preference for living away off at the tattered edge of things. But as chaotic as Andy was, he was willing to work just as hard as he had to--if no harder--to make a place for himself. Lloyd never had a home at all. He was almost 40 years old, and the seven months he had spent cutting cedar posts south of Jiggs was the longest he'd stayed on a job in his life, not counting his hitch in the army or the 29 months he's spent in the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
He's started drifting when he'd left his Texas home at 17 and he'd been moving around so long since that he couldn't remember any more where he'd been or how long he'd been there. He had no good reason to remember; one place was as good as another to Lloyd. He'd gone from Breckenridge, Texas to Buckeye, Arizona; moved on to Bakersfield, California; to Klamath Falls, Oregon; to Weiser, Idaho; to Moab, Utah; to Buffalo, Wyoming; to Gosper, Nebraska; to Rifle, Colorado; to Lordsburg, New Mexico. He'd get a job bucking hay, or drilling water wells, or feeding cattle or roughnecking in an oil field, and he'd work until the urge came on him to go somewhere else. Then he'd draw a little advance against his next week's wages--severance pay, he called it--and head off down the road. He stole a little, and pilfered on the job, but his thievery was as impromptu and small-time as everything else he did, and he never profited much by it. He'd been married four times, once when he was so drunk his bride had to show him the certificate the next day before he'd believe it. If you asked him how long it had been since he's seen his children he couldn't tell you if it had been 12 years or 11, and he wouldn't be interested enough to figure it out. The past was a blur to Lloyd, and the future didn't exist.
He and Andy weren't friends exactly, because you could no more make friends with Lloyd than you could with an insect, but they spent time together, Lloyd on one side of the bar and Andy on the other.
In the end they quarreled, and Lloyd, when the job was finished, drifted off again. Some people in the valley said the trouble came over Lloyd's young wife, Mary.
That buckaroo never mentioned Lloyd at all. And considering what happened between Andy and Lloyd later on, he'd surely have mentioned it if Lloyd had been around.
It was on a warm summer's night, he told me, raising his voice a little over the clang and clatter of the slot machines, one of those warm, country night when the piney, winey winds out of the Rubies set the silver-gray sagebrush quivering across the undulating hills, then stilled to soak up the rich, sweet smell of fresh-cut hay. There had been a pretty good crowd at Andy's place that night, and Andy had been drinking right along with them.
By three in the morning everyone had wandered off home, and Andy walked out under the porch overhang to get a breath of air. He blinked woozily up at a sky full of diamonds swimming in eccentric circles through the void of space, and he stepped off into the road to take a little moonlight stroll before turning in. He walked along the washboard road, and in all the world the only sound he heard were the gravel crunching under his feet and the pulse pounding in his head. Suddenly his wandering gaze was pulled to the road before him. There at full length, still as a stick and gleaming in the moonlight like a bright length of rope, lay a rattlesnake. Andy pulled up so short he nearly fell over backward.
He'd often heard rancher Lee Kline describe how he disposed of diamondbacks--he'd take a snake by the tail, yank it in the air and snap it like you snap a bullwhip, and pop its head right off.
Andy looked at the snake a long time, and then he crouched slowly down, gingerly stretched out his arm, and gripped the snake by the tail, just forward of the rattles. Then he straightened up with a lurch, swayed, lost his balance, dropped his arm to catch himself, and snagged the snake's fangs in his nose.
He danced backward, yelling and pulling at the snake. And when it pulled loose at last, the free end of it made a graceful, looping circle in the air and hooked him behind the ear. Andy started to run back down the road toward the bar in a shambling, flat-footed trot, yanking at the snake and bleating with exertion and and fear as he struggled to dislodge the fangs. And no sooner did he pull it free than he'd make an awkward effort to snap it like a bullwhip, and the head of the snake would swing wide at the end of its writhing length to strike him again and again: on the cheek, on the neck, on the lip, on his forehead.
He hadn't got halfway back to the bar when the venom began to work and send him into shock. He fell flat on his back, still gripping the tail of the struggling snake. With his free hand he reached over and clamped the snake behind its head. He pulled its twisting length taut above him and drew it to his ravaged face. Before he slipped entirely into unconsciousness he opened his jaws and clacked them shut again, grinding his teeth into the rippling length of spine and sinew stretched between his fists.
It was sheer chance that three cowboys happened along the road in a pickup truck just as dawn was breaking. They found Andy lying there with half a snake in each hand and a bloody bite-sized chunk out of the middle under his chin. Not that they could see his chin; Andy's head was swollen up as big as a basketball, all purple and black, and his features so puffed up they only recognized him by his clothes.
They put him in the back of the pickup truck and brought him to the saloon, carried him inside. They dragged him onto a barstool, wedged him tight against the wall, and left him balanced there. His lips were sputtering cucumbers in an enormous eggplant head. The cowboys set eight water glasses full of whiskey in front of him, stuck a straw into his ghastly head, and left him alone to get well or die.
He sat there three days, slowly sucking whisky through the straw. When he finally moved, it was to get more whisky. When his eyes opened up again, he counted eight places where the snake had struck him. After a week he was back behind the bar, as good as new except for the Band-aids all over his head.
When he finished his story, the cowpuncher picked up his canvas satchel and threaded his way out through the eager crowd of fun-hungry weekend gamblers spilling into Harrah's from the chartered bus at the curb, clutching sheaves of Lucky Bucks and dipping into cardboard cups of Lucky Nickels before they were well across the threshhold. He walked across Center Street where the shadow of the new hotel draped the intersection like a shroud. He lingered briefly at Parker's scruffy storefront, inspecting the displays of Levis and Resistols and rough-out boots in the windows. Over his head a piece of green neon sizzled and flickered against the paint-flaked bricks: "."
Two years after he'd left, Lloyd Lancaster came back to Elko. He and Mary were flat broke as usual, and slept for a few days with the baby on the floor of a box car until some people they had known before took them in. Lloyd found a roofing job at Wells, and Mary found waitress work at a Chinese Cafe in Elko. After a few days Lloyd was laid off because of the weather, and he wondered whether to wait it out or to move on to someplace different.
On a Sunday he got drunk with the people who had befriended them, and that night while they were sleeping, he stole a 30-30 rifle, a pistol, a half-grown collie pup and a bobtail cat, and left with Mary and the baby. They pulled in at Andy's a little after 11.
Andy served them, but he didn't talk to them. He stayed at the end of the bar and while Mary used her coat to make a bed for the baby on the bar, and Lloyd got into a conversation about dogs, Andy just sat back and watched. When one of the ranchers made as if to go home, Andy quietly asked him to stay. After an hour Lloyd asked about conditions over Harrison Pass and he, Mary and the baby were gone back out into the frigid night.
Andy asked the rancher to stay just a little longer, but soon he was gone, and one of the buckaroos, awash in a dozen beers, went with him to ride along as far as the Circle L. Only George Davis stayed, head down across his folded arms at a table in the back. And Andy.
An hour passed. Another. George Davis slept on, and from time to time Andy poured himself a drink.
At three o'clock the door pushed suddenly open again and Lloyd shepherded the dog inside. Mary came in after them with the child, and put her to play on the floor. Lloyd drew the stolen pistol from his jacket pocket and shot Andy through the forehead. Andy's dead body fell down behind the bar in such a way that Mary had to skip lightly over his sprawled legs to punch the cash register open.
"What the hell is going on here?" George Davis stood uncertainly at the edge of the shadows looking at Mary, the curly-haired Lloyd and the baby playing on the floor.
"This is what's going on, you son of a bitch!" Lloyd took three strides toward the flabbergasted cowboy, thrust the gun in his astonished face and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired and Lloyd clubbed George Davis down with it, whap, whap, whap, to the floor. Lloyd pulled the trigger again, and this time the gun fired.
Mary snatched up the baby and dashed out the door. Lloyd loped after her, the pup romping along with him, leaving George Davis in a spreading pool of blood with a bullet in his brain.
Two days later Lloyd and Mary were in jail in Idaho waiting for the Elko County Sheriff to fly up and bring them back. Lloyd denied the whole thing at first, but then he confessed and said he'd forced Mary to co-operate with him against her will. Her charges were dismissed, and when Lloyd drew life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, Mary divorced him and moved away.
It might have been 1885 when this empty-eyed drifter gunned down the isolated saloon-keeper in the tiny Nevada town on the western frontier, but it was actually March, 1962. As recently as that Jiggs was still an active remnant of the old west, even Reno was still half-caught in its pioneer past. But no more.
It's a new West now, a California west flowing down out of the Sierra. A century and a half ago westward migration was dammed back by the sea and people began piling up on the coast. Cast iron has given way to plastic, the foot-burner plow to the subdivision, the pioneer to the corporate officer and Nuestra Senora la reina de los Angeles to El Lay.
Now this California culture is spilling down the eastern slope of the Sierra and trickling out into the desert. There is a fine four lane Interstate running along the old Humboldt Trail between Reno and Elko. And Elko is a bright little city in its own right, with a splendid new shopping center at its eastern end and acres of parking for the cars that people are using to get around town in now.
And from Elko the road is paved all the way to Jiggs now.
There are still a handful of people out here who remember Andy, but they're scattered out in the ranches at the faraway canyon mouths. Some of them must know the story of Andy's fight with the snake--maybe they heard it from that cowboy like I did how despite ineptitude, foolishness and fear, Andy survived through guts, determination and a three-day supply of whisky.
It's a fine mythic tale, sturdily homemade of native materials.
But it doesn't fit with the new West and so it has died. It hasn't been told at the bar at Harrah's since that afternoon 30 years ago I'm sure, and even in Jiggs it's not remembered any more.
Some pleasant people from California were running the saloon when I visited a few years after I heard the story. They have cleaned it up, painted it and added cheerful touches that would have astonished Andy. Women don't hesitate to come inside any more. Enormous pastel campers lumber up to the single gas pump outside the saloon from as far away as San Diego or Chico and some of them are snappish because there's no motel or supermarket at Jiggs. It shows up big on the highway map, they say accusingly.
The new people knew about Lloyd Lancaster killing Andy. A story about a murder doesn't fade away overnight, especially when it happened right there. Although bloody murder in the dark of night seems a trifle abstract in this cheerful setting now.
They laughed when I asked about Andy and the snake. Didn't happen.
No, what happened was that Red, one of the men who had stayed a while with Andy, had gone out one noontime to gas up the watermaster's pickup truck. The watermaster had been out checking on the diversion gates, making sure no-one was taking more than his fair share of the precious irrigating water for the hay crop. Red, as usual, was drunk.
Some resentful rancher high in the hills had slung a diamondback into the bed of the watermaster's pickup and when he'd pulled in at the gas pump it had slithered down onto the ground. Red, boozy and reeling, had stuck the gasoline nozzle into the tank and while he waited for it to fill he flopped down into the dirt squarely on top of the snake, which bit him through his pants.
He rose up out of the dust in a hysterical flurry of knees and elbows and ran screaming into the bar, the snake swinging from the seat of his pants like a tail. Someone killed the snake with a beer bottle and someone else drove Red to the hospital in Elko.
Ordinarily, they assured me, you never see snakes as low as Jiggs, not even bull snakes.
No epic struggle in the moonlight, just a comical episode, a saloon soak getting bit on the butt.
I think it did happen. But it has melted down into the sagebrush and nearly forgotten, except by that cowboy, and then by me--and now by you.
And by Lloyd, sober now for more than 30 years and still doing time, suspended in his prison cell between the old west and the new. I'm sure he knows the story.
David W. Toll of Gold Hill is the author of The Complete Nevada Traveler and publisher of The Nevada Industrial Directory.
This story was originally published in the December, 1977 edition of Westways Magazine and has been treated cosmetically for aging.