Carla Champlin’s voice had taken on real urgency. “Your son is running over this way,” she said. “The other boy is down on the ground. Now I just don’t know what…”
Traffic was light, only a single on-coming car at the intersection of Bustos and Grande. Estelle flipped on the grill wiggle-waggles, ran the red light, and accelerated hard to continue west bound on Bustos. At Eighth, she turned south. In a moment she could see the open prairie, an expanse of tans and browns bordering the Eighth Street cul-de-sac.
A dirt two-track had been carved into the desert by scores of dirt bikes, motorcycles, and four wheelers that had jumped to the open lot from Eighth Street. Estelle eased the county car over the worn, crumbling curb. Off to the left, she could see Carla, arms waving commands. A tiny figure sprinted away from the old woman back toward the arroyo, racing a beeline through the scrub to intersect the patrol car’s path. To the right, just back from the arroyo’s edge, the other boy was hunkered on his elbows and knees, head down near the ground.
“PCS, three ten.”
“Go ahead, three ten.”
“I need an ambulance at this location ASAP. It may be a snake bite. One juvenile.” Little Francisco was sprinting in high gear now, and Estelle realized that the loud pounding was her own heart.
“Ten four. Say the location again.”
“The south end of Eighth Street, out by the arroyo.” “Ten four.”
The dirt two track wandered toward the houses on Carla’s street. Estelle braked hard, sliding the county car to a stop. By the time she had climbed out, her son was within easy earshot.
“Butch got something in his eye!” the little boy called.
Estelle looked hard at her son, the nine-year-old so lanky now that his bones poked at the lightweight, white linen Mexican shirt that his grandmother had given him.
“Show me.” She strode after the boy as he dashed back toward his friend.
“We found a snake,” Francisco called over his shoulder.
And sure enough, they had. The creature writhed in slow motion under a broken clump of creosote bush, rattles sounding like a short-circuited electrical gadget. With both hands covering his face, Butch Romero was curled into a crying, whimpering, cursing ball, crumpled so that the crown of his head dug into the gravel and sand. Estelle glanced quickly at the battered reptile, guessed that it wasn’t going anywhere with most of its own head pulped, and sank to her knees beside the tortured boy.
“Butch, you’ll be okay.” She took his shoulders, feeling the trembling that racked his wiry body. He yelped and thrashed, hands tearing at his face. His mouth gaped, a strand of drool soaking his chin. Hugging him close, she caught one of his hands. “Come on, now. Let me see.”
The boy wailed something incomprehensible, leaning his weight against Estelle. As if the flashes of pain were punching him in the gut, he kept ducking his head and twisting. The undersheriff maneuvered her hand across his right arm, and she could feel the knotted muscles like small bands of steel. The fourteen-year-old was no more than five-foot-two and ninety pounds, but he was a tough little kid.
All the while talking gently into the boy’s ear, she worked her arm across Butch’s chest until she hugged him tightly, pinning his upper arms. “You’re going to be all right. You have to stop digging at your eyes. Come on.” Still he fought her with a desperate strength that was astonishing. At one point he jerked his head back, his hard skull cracking Estelle on the cheek. She flinched and tightened her bear hug. In the distance, she heard a siren.
“Hijo, run over and wave them in,” she said. “Butch, hang in there, now. You’re going to be all right. Help is on the way.” She still had no idea what the extent of his injuries could be. Struggling would make matters worse, so she settled for the tight hug, trying to hold him still.
Still whispering to the boy, she turned her head and watched the progress of the big diesel EMT rig as it waddled up over the curb at the end of Eighth. The ambulance left the two track and pursued Francisco, making its own road across the scrub-covered lot. It turned in a wide circle at the last moment.
Doyle Maestas climbed out of the truck and took two seconds both to survey the area and watch where he stepped, taking in the undersheriff and the apparent victim. He pulled a field case out of one of the storage compartments on the side of the truck, by that time joined by his partner, Matty Finnegan.
“What do we have?” Matty knelt by Estelle. “Oh, jeez, here we go.” She caught sight of the battered snake. “Butchie, we’re going to help you now. You hang in there.” She inclined her head and looked at Estelle. “You have a good hold?” The undersheriff nodded.
“Butchie, you have to move your hands,” Matty said. “You want the sedative?” Maestas asked.
“We’re going to need it. Here, take his right hand.” With Estelle locking his upper arms, and one EMT on each lower limb, they were able to force the boy’s hands down. “Butch, can you tell me what happened?”
“In my eye,” the boy sobbed, finally saying something coherent. “My right eye.”
“You have his arms?” Matty asked, and when Doyle nodded, she gently took his head in both hands, gripping him on each cheek, her fingers under his ears, thumbs on the crests of his cheek bones. The eye was already discolored, and a massive flood of tears poured down his face. Butch spasmed. “Well, you have something there, old man.” She turned to look at the discarded electric Weed Whacker. “Now that’s something I haven’t seen before. You were teasing the snake with that trimmer?”
Butch howled something incomprehensible.
“Okay. I’m going to cover that eye so you don’t injure it any more. You’re going to help me do that, my man. All right?” In an instant, she’d found a large white eye cup in the bag, and with a few deft wraps had secured it over the injured eye, taping it around his head.
“Gurney?” Doyle asked.
“You betcha,” Matty replied. “We’re going to need the belts. Nobody’s going to get an I.V. in him the way he’s bouncing around.” She looked over at the snake again as she rose to her feet. “Coon tail, right?”
“Yes.” Estelle turned so that she could see her son. “Francisco, what happened?”
“We went looking for snakes,” the nine-year-old said. “With a trimmer?” The western diamondback was arguably the largest, most dangerous rattler in the southwest, doubly so because of its enormous venom supply and aggressive habits.
“It kinda worked,” Francisco said. “We got it cornered, and then Butch was gonna cut its head off with the Weed Whacker. It kept striking at it.”
“So we’ve got some of that in the eye,” Doyle said. “Envenomed, you think?”
“Most likely,” Matty said. “We’re going to want that I.V., and get him on some Versed to calm him down. Butch, we’re going to give you a little happy juice, all right? You’re going to help us do that by trying your best to hold still.”
Estelle looked around for her son, who stood with his hands clasped tightly under his chin. “Hijo, get the shovel out of my car. You know where the trunk release is. Be careful when you do it.” Doyle returned with the gurney while Matty popped the I.V. package out of the sterile packaging. “Butch, I’m going to give you a little shot to kill the pain, all right? You just try to hold still now.” She had the needle in before he could react, and taped it securely in place.
In a moment, with the help of the fast-acting sedative, they were able to coax Butch Romero onto the gurney. He thrashed a bit, but finally they were able to secure his arms and legs, and then his head. With the boy trussed and wrapped, Doyle started a saline I.V., and in a moment their cargo was in the ambulance. “Just another day’s work in paradise,” Doyle cracked as they boarded the vehicle. “Talk to you later, sheriff. Odds are good that he’ll be flyin’ out to University. We have antivenom at the hospital to start with, but your hubby isn’t going to want to mess with that eye. Butch’s mom at home?”
“I’ll find her,” Estelle said. “I’ll bring her to the hospital.” “You got it.”
Estelle reached out a hand for her son’s bony shoulder and gave it a little shake, keeping her hold until the heavy ambulance had maneuvered away. “Thank you,” she said, taking the shovel from him.
The diamondback was a full sixty inches long, its compliment of rattles showing that it had endured a good many seasons before running into an incomprehensible enemy. With a deft, sharp whack of the spade, Estelle cut off the mangled head, setting off a renewed thrashing as the powerful body tried to tie itself into knots. Francisco watched with eyes wide.
She handed him the spade and pointed. “We’ll bury him right there. Dig a good hole.” He set to work without question, and Estelle walked back to the car. She selected one of the heavy clear plastic evidence bags from her briefcase, along with a brown paper bag. By the time she returned to the site, Francisco had excavated an impressive hole.
The undersheriff used the edge of the shovel to flip the remains of the snake’s head into the plastic bag. The trimmer’s high speed spinning nylon string had been an effective weapon, macerating and then tearing out much of the rattler’s mouth tissue. One fang was still in place, but the other had been torn free…and apparently was pegged in Butch Romero’s eye. She slipped the evidence bag inside the brown sack. The snake’s now limp body slid into the hole, and Estelle spaded the dirt back in to cover it.
“Butch said his dad grills ’em,” Francisco offered.
“Not this one, hijo. The snakes don’t know that coming into town is the most dangerous place for them.”
“What do you do with the head?” he asked.
“In case the doctors need it, hijo.” She nodded at the string trimmer. “You fetch that so you can give it back to Butch’s mom. We need to go talk to her now.” The little boy nodded soberly.
“I’m sorry, mamá.”
“So am I.” She followed him back toward the car, watching the grace of his movements, the dark intensity of him. It would be so much easier if children could be cocooned until they reached twenty-one, she thought.