Ronald Clay was an older cowboy who lived outside of Flomot, Texas, which accounts for about 180 of the 1,000 people who live in Motley County. I came to know Mr. Clay when I worked for the USDA office in Matador, Texas, 90 miles northeast of Lubbock.
I knew that the Clay boys had been wild in their younger days; I even heard that Ronald used to pop the heads off live rattlesnakes by cracking them like a whip. J. Frank Dobie’s book, Rattlesnakes, talks about cowboys pulling this stunt, but I thought it was part of the folklore in the book.
One day when Mr. Clay came into the office, I asked him about it. “Oh, yeah, I guess I’ve popped a snake or two,” he said. “That would be something to see,” I said. “Well, I’ll call you this spring when the snakes come out of their dens,” he promised.
That April, I showed up at his house with my jeans tucked into my tall-top boots. We took off in his pickup with two five gallon buckets rigged with wooden lids and two snake grabbers that really didn’t seem long enough considering what they grabbed.
We walked along the sides of draws and cliffs in an area that John Wayne movies could have been filmed in. “Watch your step,” Mr. Clay unnecessarily warned.
The first den had three snakes coiled just outside. Ronald grabbed one with the grabber as calmly as if he were picking up the morning paper, setting off a wild buzzing from the captive and his two friends, who both started retreating. “Grab one,” he said. Not wanting to show my fear, I grabbed the snake right at its middle. It took both hands on the grabber to hold him up. After we got both snakes in the bucket, and after I made sure that the lid was securely latched, we headed to the next den.
After a few catches, I started to feel brave. But when Mr. Clay decided that we needed a certain snake that was coiled in some brush, which a person would have to crawl to get to, I drew the line. Mr. Clay didn’t hesitate. He dropped to his belly and crawled under the brush almost until the snake was overhead, reached up and grabbed it, and crawled back out like it was nothing.
When the hunt was over, I wasn’t sure whether to mention the snake popping or not. I didn’t want to cause a seventy-something year old man to get rattlesnake bit. But Mr. Clay hadn’t forgotten. He pulled the biggest snake we had caught out of the bucket—it may have been three and a half or four feet long—and dropped it on the ground. “You’ve got to get them kinda stretched out,” he explained as he prodded the snake with the grabber, as if I were going to try it next. “And once you grab his tail, you need to keep him twirling.” And twirling he was, around and around like a Ferris wheel. “That way he can’t strike.”
And then, whether you believe it or not, my old cowboy friend cracked that snake like a whip. On the first try, the head didn’t come off. “I guess I’m getting old,” Mr. Clay said while he still twirled. But the second crack was successful, the head came off, I saw it, lived to tell about it, and darn sure didn’t try it.
I’ll never forget that day, and when I read of some stunt that a Texas cowboy supposedly pulled back in the day, I don’t doubt it.