The camp consisted of a dozen teepees connected by footpaths of frozen mud set on a sunken meadow within the forested hills outside Guadalupita, New Mexico. It was night and a large fire illuminated the center of the camp. Two bands of men formed two crescents around the fire separated only by a few feet of empty space where the last man of one band met the first of the other like the opposing ends of two horseshoe magnets. On one side were the Jicarilla Apaches, the men adorned in ratty pelts of coyote, bear, and elk, while behind them a huddle of women used chipped stones to shave clinging flecks of meat from the upturned ribcage of a deer. On the other side were the rogue soldiers, dressed not in uniform but soggy boots, knee-holed trousers, duster overcoats, bandanas, soiled cavalry hats rimmed with snakeskin. One man from each party stood, he of the soldiers being the storyteller and he of the Apaches his translator.
The men quieted, the women stopped their work, and Garret Kelly — twenty-four, tall, trim, toothy, golden-haired, green-eyed, Confederate, polyglot, and self-proclaimed swordsmith, professional gambler, whisky distiller, riverboat engineer, author, and one-time paramour to the First Lady of Kentucky — began his story:
“There was a man who lived not far from here and not long ago. He had a home in a village that he shared with no wife and no children. Instead, the man lived with a profound collection of pets. They were not regular pets like cats and dogs but rather creatures of typically abhorrent species. Tarantulas, centipedes, scorpions, snakes, toads, lizards, mice, and rats crawled about sawdusted and soggy cages made of chicken wire or glass that cluttered and stunk the man’s home. Of this collection the man was boastful, proud the way such men are, as if their peculiarity was rather courage to live as others dared not to. Like boys who flip their eyelids and laugh at their friends’ repulsion.
“But there was one pet among them the man was especially fond of. Obscenely so. It was a snake, one whose breed was not known but could only be speculated upon mythologically. It measured thirteen feet. The midsection was muscly and thick as a man’s thigh, its eyes large black beads — round and unslitted. The man claimed to have acquired the animal when it was young from a traveling Mexican out of the Yucatan.
“The snake did not live like the other man’s pets, cooped in one of his many stacked cages. It was of course too big for that. Instead, the man allowed the creature free roam of his house. And so attached did he become to his prized animal that he openly admitted to sharing his bed with it, inviting the snake nightly to coil under the warmth of his sheets, to glean the heat off his own body. Behind the home the man raised rabbits and chickens, and from these pens both man and snake sufficed dietarily until, as inevitably the animal’s appetite paced its physical growth, the man was forced to begin raising goats. Of this stock the snake was fed one pre-killed goat every two weeks, each time unhinging its jaws to swallow and then slide the bulge deep into its length. Like this the two lived, contentedly sharing home, bed, and diet, for more than two years.
“But then the man grew worried, for suddenly the snake stopped eating. When he set the bi-weekly goat before his pet’s nose, the snake simply darted its tongue and then turned its head, uninterested. A month passed and the man decided the snake had grown tired of goats, so he tried a freshly shot fawn, still to no success. And when two whole months passed with the snake not eating a single thing, the man’s concern turned to panic; anguish even at the fear of his most beloved companion being sick and dying. More than this, the animal’s sleeping behavior had changed. No longer did it rest peacefully tight in its coil by the man’s legs. Instead the man would wake in the night to find it stretched out stiff and lengthwise against his body, its head near his own and its tail draping off the bed and into the doorway.
“Desperate now, the man sought out a farmer clever in the biologies of exotic things. The story of the snake, along with its symptoms, were related in great detail to the farmer, and as he spoke the man observed the face of the farmer become so disturbed by the time he finished he had already concluded the worst for his cherished pet. He asked if his snake was dying and was surprised when the farmer said no, the animal was not dying.
“The snake, the farmer solemnly informed him, was not dying and neither was it sick. It was instead, as members of their species do, hollowing its stomach and building up its appetite as it prepared for a very large meal. And the reason it lay outstretched in bed close against the man’s side was to confirm the meal would fit.”
When he finished, Garret surveyed the men around the fire. For a long moment no one spoke or moved. Then, finally, his face grave and understanding, the Apache chief nodded at Garret Kelly.
Later that night while making up his bedroll, Garret was interrupted by the runt of the group, Connor Rutledge. Of all the men in their party Connor was the youngest, the smallest, and also, in Garret’s estimation, the dimmest, which was all vexing as Garret had never understood what it was that had qualified Connor for this mission except that he, like Garret, spoke Spanish. Otherwise the young man was clumsy and unconfident and, consequently, dangerous. Adding to all this, Garret had somehow found himself after two nights of poker forty dollars in Connor’s debt.
Connor took a seat next to Garret’s bedroll. “Is that a true story?”
“Hell yes it’s a true story,” Garret said. “Happened in the town of Pine Bluff. Feller’s name was J.B. Wooten. He had that thing where one eye is a different color than the other. I forget what it’s called.”
“I never know when you’re lying.”
“I ain’t asking you to.” Garret lay down on his roll with his hands folded under his head, allowing Connor in the silence of the stalled conversation to feel like a prick.
“So you weren’t just yarn-spinning?”
“You think we wasted an afternoon of riding and gave away half our food just so I could spin a yarn?”
Connor was quiet.
“You watch, when this thing heats up Indians are going to end up our best and perhaps only ally. Because way out here who else is going to take our side? Not the Mexicans, that’s for sure. Sibley and them are all Texan for God’s sake, and anymore Texans fighting Mexicans is almost a virtue. The Indians on the other hand, they hate the bluecoats. Granted, they hate us too, along with anyone else who’s ever shot a rabbit or drank from one of their creeks, but at least their hate is negotiable, gullible even. We’re not trying to get them to stop hating us, just to keep hating the other side more. Them burning wagons and attacking forts is the reason so many federals are being kept here instead of going east.”
“I already know all that,” Connor said. “I’m asking about the story.”
“You’re too stuck on the drama of the tale and not my reason for telling it. See, Indians like to have their arguments made allegorically. Legends and yarns and such. They’ll tell you a dozen stories about some god slaying another just to explain why the sun sets red. Tonight’s story wasn’t really about a man and a snake. It was about a people that allowed an inherently evil being into their home, an entity that over time grew so large it required not just the space of the home but also its food. And it continued to grow until even that which had come to trust it eventually and inevitably became yet another thing for it to swallow.”
“You were instigating.”
“The snake was the Union.”
“Really I could have made it stand for just about anyone, Mexicans too I’d bet.” Garret could almost hear Connor’s mind whirring as it replayed the story, little mechanical arms picking up and connecting metaphors.
“Why did the chief call you aside afterward?” Connor asked. “What were you two talking about?”
“He wanted to know the end of the story.”
“That wasn’t the end?”
“He wanted to know what became of the snake.”
“Well, there are two versions.”
“You said the story was true!”
“It is, save for one of the endings.”
“So what are they?”
“In one version the man returned to his home after meeting with the farmer, picked up an ax, and hacked the snake to pieces. But in the other, the man, so trusting of his pet and unbelieving of the farmer, did nothing until one night as he slept the snake wound its coils about his body and squeezed the life out of him. And when the man was dead it devoured him just like one of its goats.”
“Jesus. So what version did you tell the chief?”
Still resting on his hands, Garret tilted his head backwards to look at where the young man sat behind him. “Since my mission was to instigate the chief, it doesn’t matter which version I told, does it?”