(I used to write Halloween stories when I was newsletter editor of the Dallas-Fort Worth Herpetological Society. Several October issues contained some sort of story from the field with a frightening twist. After a Trans-Pecos trip in 2006, I wrote this story. Clint and I had indeed driven Black Gap with storms around us, and discovered a rattlesnake someone had recently killed and mutilated, although we had seen no one on the road with us. This, and an overactive imagination, resulted in the following story. Happy Halloween!)
We walked the rock cuts a little way before the entrance to Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, with Clint scrambling up the broken rock face like a spider to reach the top, while I walked along at the bottom. I examined crevices and hiding spots, and Clint flipped rocks at the summit. Both of us hoped to find rock rattlesnakes, long-nosed snakes, or any of a number of other reptile species that live in the desert hills and flats of the Big Bend region.
“Watch out for stuff falling, possibly including me,” Clint yelled from about twenty feet up, as a few rocks tumbled down the rock face to the edge of the road.
“Just be careful, the edge there is crumbly,” I said, as he turned rocks only inches from the precipice. I knew that he had plenty of west Texas experience with rock cuts, cacti, and venomous wildlife, but I also knew that we were a long way from help, should he fall.
Here at sunset, it was quiet along this ridge in the desert just to the east of Big Bend National Park. It was early October, and so it was warm but not hot, and a breeze was blowing. Looking off toward the south, a wide expanse of dagger plants and creosote bush, prickly pear, and lechuguilla stretched between this and the next hill, with mountains off to the right. Soon it would be dark, and we hoped to see plenty of the creatures that emerge from hiding after the sun goes down.
We had already seen quite a few reptiles and a few amphibians on this trip. Driving west from Sanderson, we had stopped for gopher snakes and rattlesnakes that were dead on the road. Over the past couple of days we had seen gopher snakes killed north of Marathon, and we had looked at many garter snakes, gopher snakes, and rattlesnakes run over on highway 118 that runs from Alpine down to the National Park. Inside the park itself, we had found a young Mojave rattlesnake lying dead on the road, and patch-nosed snakes, Trans-Pecos rat snakes, and more gopher snakes run over.
Walking around on the dagger flats in the eastern part of the park, it was reassuring to see some lizards darting between cacti and creosote bushes across the rocky ground. At least there were some living reptiles here, we thought. Clint pointed out a dome-shaped interlaced structure like a crown of thorns, where a barrel-shaped cactus had died and returned to the desert, all but the tough thorns. This was a place of blistering heat in the summer, with periods of little rainfall punctuated by violent storms. To live here is to defy challenges and embrace extremes. The Big Bend is a place of awe-inspiring beauty, and some of the awe is that there can be beauty here at all.
At the beginning of this night, Clint and I were excited to be apparently the only ones out here, with warm temperatures and a storm front approaching; very favorable conditions for seeing snakes on the road. Driving the 40 miles south from Marathon, all the cars had been coming out of the area. Then we turned on Ranch Road 2627, a two-lane road that runs about another 30 miles southeast to the border with Mexico. The pavement cut across the floor of the desert, hugged the edges of ridges and hills, and dipped down into dry washes, and nowhere did we see another human. As it got darker, lightning became more visible behind the hills and mountains around us.
We found a few rattlesnakes on the way down, including a beautiful black-tailed rattlesnake a little over three feet long. These snakes are potentially quite dangerous, but they are usually easygoing in encounters such as this. We photographed it, and then moved it off the road. The snake balanced on the hook and tongue-flicked in curiosity. It did not rattle, and seemed to accept being moved around. Clint and I were overjoyed to see snakes that were alive, and finding a live black-tail was one of the high points of the trip so far.
We examined rock cuts and moved on through the darkness, a breeze scattering a few grasses across the road surface. Lightning became brighter and a little closer, though not so close that we heard much thunder. Looking up into the night sky, flashes of lightning would illuminate the towering clouds, making a surreal landscape in the heavens to mirror the earthbound mountains along the horizon.
At the end of Ranch Road 2627 the pavement widens to allow vehicles to turn around, because there is no other way out. Visiting in past years, there has never been a light to signal the presence of another human being. This night was different: up on the ridge just above the road, a light emanated from something. A lantern? Who would camp out here on the desolate, wild ridge top amid the cactus and scorpions? Sitting there with windows down and the low rumble of thunder in the distance, there was something acrid in the air, like the sulfur of a burned match head. A chill ran up my back.
The two of us drove a quarter mile or so back up the road, glad to be away from these odd sensations. Clint and I settled back into the routine of scanning the road surface for snakes, and we soon found another little rattlesnake. We stopped and got out to take a quick look and move it off the road. And then, we each noticed a brief buzzing sound, broken and interrupted, but clearly a rattlesnake. Clint shifted his light in the direction of the sound, and dropped his flashlight with a gasp. My light found the spot, jerking and shaking but focused on a long, reptilian form impaled on the long spiked leaves of a dagger plant.
It was a big diamondback rattlesnake; its five feet stretched out vertically and pierced in several places by the rigid, sharp leaves. At the bottom, its rattle vibrated in fits and starts as life ebbed from its body. Its belly faced outward, and its neck and first third of the body had been sliced and torn (down to about where the heart would be, it occurred to me). Its ribs had been forced outward, flared in a hideous mockery of a cobra’s hood. The rattlesnake’s head faced forward, mouth open and fangs rotated down. It would have stared out at any who approached it, but for the fact that the snake’s eyes had been gouged out and were gone. The whole body tried to bend a little in a serpentine fashion, but the cruel daggers and the snake’s fading strength prevented all but the slightest motion.
“My God,” I choked out, as both of us realized that this mutilation had happened only minutes before, and we had seen no one, no car lights, nothing else but a lantern and a whiff of sulfur. We were more than fifty miles from the nearest town, alone in the desert.
“The car – come on!” was Clint’s reply, and we turned toward the only way out of there.
It was not where we thought it was. Somehow we had walked thirty or more feet before finding the horror on the dagger plant, and now we broke into a run toward the vehicle. Off to the side, we became aware of a clattering like the shaking of dry bones and shells, and a belligerent hiss. Something was moving, pacing us as we ran. A lightning flash lit the desert, and we saw brush and century plants and dagger plants being pushed aside as something raced ahead. We sprinted on in panic.
Before we could reach the car, a figure leapt from the vegetation, clearing at least fifteen feet and landing on my windshield with a loud pop of fracturing glass. It hopped to the ground in front of us, a dark gargoyle from some medieval nightmare with bright glowing eyes. It struck me that this must be what the Mexicans call the “chupacabra,” a monster out of folk legend that kills and mutilates animals.
Two orange-red eyes like glowing coals shifted from Clint to me, and back again. Although I do not remember heat, sulfurous vapor came off the thing in waves that made the air shimmer. It shifted and crouched a little, preparing to jump toward us. Clint and I each ran in a different direction.
“The road is no good,” I thought, “it can catch me in one or two jumps.” I kept thinking of the windshield-shattering impact as it landed. I ran into the desert, weaving between yuccas and bushes, dimly aware of sharp pains as my legs hit patches of cactus. Behind me, a rattling like dry bones and shells. Just another leap from that monster, I thought, and it will be over. I wondered if I would be impaled on long, dagger-like leaves, trying to twist and bend and get free?
It leapt over me with a long, groaning wail like a rusty iron hinge. I instinctively ducked and at that moment I lost my balance and tumbled down into a dry wash. The world spun around and I passed into blackness and insensibility.
The next thing I remembered was Clint pulling me up into a sitting position. Pain from a hundred cactus spines and bruises from my fall made it very hard to move.
“What happened – why did you run out here?” he asked, “You just took off like you’d gone nuts. I yelled but you didn’t answer.”
I could not reply through the pain and confusion. With Clint’s help, I limped back toward where he said the car was. We made our way around dagger plants and patches of cactus, as lightning flashed on three sides around us. The car came into view, but my sense of relief was snatched away by the sight of the circle of broken glass in the windshield. I turned to look at Clint, but he did not notice.
“What’s that smell?” he said, wrinkling his nose. “Like sulfur.”
A short distance away, I thought I could hear the rattling of bones and shells.