It was the year that the State of Deseret came up before the Congress, or the one after or before, and my sister and I paid our morning visit to the hens in their coops, saluting the queen but never the cock, as momma had taught us. We had with us the little wire basket, for there were but four or six eggs, maybe more or less, and momma was at the stove cutting bacon. We set the table as momma went to breaking the eggs into a skillet, and Jeb had come in with the milk when momma gave out such a scream I thought as like the Yankees had all come to murder us at our tables, but it was only a bunch of skinny little snakes and a bit of blood crawling about among the yolks in the pan. Now momma was fit to be tied and was to take it as an omen, but Jeb just laughed and told her about cuckoo snakes, and this is what he said as he said it, with only a word more or less.
Now the cuckoo snake is like the cuckoo bird, for it likes to place its eggs in the nests of others and let those cuckoo’d mothers roost their stepchildren, but it does not place its eggs in the nests of other snakes, but the nests of birds, and this is how it is done: just as the cuckoo bird will knock out a momma bird’s own eggs to place her own, the cuckoo snake will stretch up its jaws and swallow one of the momma bird’s eggs whole, and then pass its own egg out of its body and leave it there. So quick and so clever is the cuckoo snake that can do this in only a few minutes, provided the hen leaves off the nest for a bit—and even then, it is said that there are some cuckoo snakes so slow and subtle in their sneaking, they’ll go and do it right when the momma bird sits atop her nest at night asleep, moving inches in hours, and not bothering her a bit. Those snake eggs sit there and in three weeks or a little less will hatch out a snake brood, which can be bad for they will eat the other eggs if they haven’t hatched yet, and the broody hen will like to abandon the nest.
Most Yankees will not countenance the cuckoo snake, because they have never seen it, those in from the Midwest would decry such a thing as impossible and unnatural, and even down the eastern cost into the south, in the Carolinas and Georgia there are few that would be credulous to such a thing. This is because the cuckoo snake is not in the north or east, but only in the south and west, out where the prairie gives way to dusty foothills and brush, but not yet into the desert proper. For it is a peculiar thing of the cuckoo snake in that it has feathers of a sort, though not proper feathers like you might see on some honest bird, but rather long, soft scales that trail out and split into fine fingers, like cornsilk but stiffer, if you can imagine such a thing. These feathers give to the cuckoo snake many advantages, for they are said to help disguise it as it sneaks up on the nest, and when bundled up asleep or played dead looks like no more than a bundle of moltings, and the warm down does allow them to stay out longer than rattlers or brown or green snakes during the cold months, and so active longer on the edges of farms and ranches, where they might get to chicken coops and duck ponds.
The Indians greatly prize the feathery skins of the cuckoo snake, and maybe again this is why so few Yankees and even good Southern men and ladies will credit such a thing, for you could get up to a dollar a skin in trade goods for a nice big one, which looks like nothing more than a feathered sock when the head is cut off and the guts are cleaned out, and so there was a great hunt for them when the white man first came, and now they are scarce. Still, even today many a father has set their boys to spend idle hours outside the chicken coop with a ready stick, keeping an out for any sign of a cuckoo snake, for a dollar is still a good bit of money.
Why the Indians want the cuckoo snake, there are not many that know, for even a half-breed will not speak of it with a quart of liquor in him. Yet I once met a Yankee that had traveled long in Mexico, and was very red in the face and burned because of it, and he said that down that way there were cuckoo snakes the size of crocodiles, and that the Indians down there had many legends and superstitions and even worship toward the things, but he was only a Yankee and it may be he lied, or else the sun had scrambled his recollection somewhat. For I ask you, if there was such a cuckoo snake of such a size down Mexico-way, what bird nest could it prey upon to roost its eggs?
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