It was while Turk and I were fiddling with our tracking equipment, trying to locate the signal from that fourth radio transmitter, that I noticed the puma. He crouched at the edge of the bushes, watching the two males competing for the female’s attention, as well as the larger male studying his fellows’ antics. My heart threatened to stop beating: that was the last thing we needed! The California Condor’s existence might not have been as tenuous as it once was, but the population didn’t need any thinning.
Then I cursed silently for my hesitation, as we always came prepared for such a contingency. Without looking back, I reached for the rifle loaded with tranquilizer darts. Experience had taught me to read the animal’s body language. Even from here, without looking through the rifle's scope, I could tell that the puma was readying itself to pounce. I’d have to shoot it, even if my action interrupted the birds’ interactions, and prompted the female to abandon her nest. But my fingers couldn’t find the metal, and as they dug through the dirt, their action produced an annoying rattling. I looked back, and my eyes widened. My fingers hadn’t made the rattling sound: a four-foot long snake, with yellow-brown coloring and darker brown diamond blotches, lay atop the rifle.
From its coloring, I recognized it as a Crotalus Oreganus Helleri, more popularly known as a Southern Pacific rattlesnake. Its venom was highly toxic, containing myotoxins and hemotoxins that could easily produce a fatal bite. The snake coiled atop the barrel of our rifle, which lay parallel to my position. The snake’s long thin tongue darted toward me, as if warning me to back off. That I could not do, not easily, as we only had enough space for Turk and I to kneel side-by-side. With the bushes to our back as well, we would need to stand up before we clambered backward over the scrub oak. “Turk,” I whispered between gritted teeth, my facial muscles frozen.
“What?” Then, in a whisper: “How do you want to handle it?”
Theoretically, I should remain frozen, and wait for the snake to lose interest in me. But, perhaps in response to Turk’s question, its head was slowly rising above its coiled body. Should I make a grab for the stock, and attempt to fling the rifle, and hence the snake, into the surrounding bushes? Or would that only compel the snake to attack me?
That tongue kept flicking at me. Those eyes bored into me. That damned rattle kept rattling. Ever so slowly, I arched my body to the right, and then extended my right arm toward the barrel, ready to halt the movement if the snake’s attention left my head to follow my hand.
I heard a strange hiss, not long like I expected, but short and sharp. Then another. Suddenly I was falling forward, the snake’s face was leaping toward mine, and I knew I had made the wrong choice.
This entry will continue in Men in Black: The Condor Incident Part 3.