I used to have a brother-in-law who was Texan in all the ways people who have never met men from Texas imagine them to be. The word “strapping,” which I don’t normally use, comes to mind. He dressed Texan, he talked Texan, he walked Texan. He favored Wranglers or, if it was a dress-up affair, khakis, worn above the hips and with razor-sharp creases. He had the lumbering gait of a man who had spent considerable time on a horse. For the eight years he was married to my sister, they lived southwest of Houston in a rural subdivision that backed up to a creek, which led to them occasionally finding rattlesnakes or cottonmouths near the house, something that chapped my brother-in-law. He once told me he wouldn’t hesitate to drive halfway across the state just to kill himself a snake, which I took to be an exaggeration, but only a slight one. I’m not a fan of snakes either, but in my case, I would drive halfway across the state just to avoid seeing one.
Other than glancing at them coiled behind thick glass in a herpetarium or squashed in the middle of the highway, I can’t remember ever being within striking distance of a snake. Which means my most memorable encounter is reading that scene in Lonesome Dove. If you’ve read the novel or seen the miniseries, you know the one. It happens a few days after the start of the epic cattle drive from South Texas to Montana, when the outfit of cowboys is crossing the Nueces River, and one of the younger hands, Newt, turns to watch the last of the cattle still in the muddy current:
“Then his eyes found Sean, who was screaming again and again, in a way that made Newt want to cover his ears. He saw that Sean was barely clinging to his horse, and that a lot of brown things were wiggling around him and over him. At first, with the screaming going on, Newt couldn’t figure out what the brown things were—they seemed like giant worms. His mind took a moment to work out what his eyes were seeing. The giant worms were snakes—water moccasins.”
Sumbitch, my former brother-in-law might have said, and I would have to concur. “Brown things” in the river, and lots of them, swarming. So many of them that at first Newt can’t even make them out in the water, which means the rest of us can’t either and we’re left to hear the “screaming again and again.” Then, whatever Sean is screaming about is “wiggling around him and over him.” Wiggling, as opposed to slithering, is generally reserved for worms and toes and maybe toddlers sneaking into their mommy and daddy’s bed on a Sunday morning. But it’s precisely the juxtaposition of wiggling and screaming, and the dissonance it creates, that makes the whole episode so nightmarish.
It was early 2002 when I first read Lonesome Dove. I know this because I had recently sold my first book, a collection of short stories, and was struggling to write my first novel. I reasoned that studying how Larry McMurtry had structured his classic saga of the American West might help me figure out how to navigate the formidable distance between short fiction and a novel. For instance, the water moccasins appeared on page 277, but Sean and his brother Allen are introduced on page 118, giving readers ample time to care about these two Irishmen before all that screaming and wiggling.
It was around this time that I also received a voice mail notifying me that I had been awarded a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, which amounted to a six-month residency at J. Frank Dobie’s former ranch house, southwest of Austin. Established in honor of the legendary author and folklorist, the fellowship has been hosting writers since the late 1960s. The property sits on 258 acres in the rolling Hill Country with primitive trails leading up to idyllic bluffs and even includes a section of Barton Creek, one of the more scenic tributaries of the Colorado River. I could pick the time of year I wanted to be on the ranch, either March through August or September through February. Most people would look at these options as a choice between the warmer months and the cooler months. But to me, it was a choice between the snake months and the fewer-snake months.
I grew up on the Texas-Mexico border, in Brownsville, and spent a fair amount of time in the country with my father, who was a livestock inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He’d bring me with him on weekends when he visited ranches and farms in the area. Most days he would patrol the Rio Grande on horseback, looking for stray cattle, which is how I learned to ride horses before I learned to ride a bike.
So it wasn’t like I hadn’t been outdoors. It wasn’t like I spooked easily. Still, there was something about snakes that triggered a primal reaction in me, just like what happened to the cowhands in McMurtry’s novel: “Jasper was so terrified that he couldn’t look at the water. Soupy Jones was almost as scared. The Rainey boys looked as if they might fall off their horses.”
The weather was still warm when my wife and I arrived at the Paisano Ranch in early September. In the living room there was a bookcase containing a few of Dobie’s books and those written by earlier guests, fiction and nonfiction writers, poets, and journalists. I found a thick binder filled with short narratives from several former fellows recounting how they’d spent their time on the ranch. I popped open a beer and read a few entries. Most told of one hardship or another. Someone’s car had been swept away in a flood after they’d parked it too close to the creek just down the caliche road from the house. Others had gotten stranded for days when the low-water crossing became hazardous after a heavy rain. I wondered what sort of mishap awaited me over the next six months.
As it turns out, the mishap occurred four days later—on a Sunday afternoon, as I remember it—when my wife told me we needed to separate. She had already put down a security deposit on an apartment in San Antonio. That evening, she left the ranch and, by extension, me. We had been married barely two years, though it hadn’t taken us half that time to sense we’d made a terrible mistake. She’d just been braver than me by admitting this out loud and doing something definitive about it. The divorce papers would be prepared over the next six months and signed only a few days before my time at the ranch ended.
After sulking for a couple of weeks, I told myself I still had a novel to write, which was true, but not as true as my needing to distract myself. I had brought a milk crate full of books to the ranch, but it was Lonesome Dove that I kept returning to. Reading the novel more than once led me to notice certain imperfections. It meandered in places, but name an eight-hundred-page book that doesn’t. I had reservations about the two main protagonists, Woodrow and Gus, and their glory days as Texas Rangers, though I knew they served long before the group’s notorious campaign of violence against Mexicans and Mexican Americans along the border. Still, it was hard for me to not be taken by the interiority of McMurtry’s characters, particularly as they struggled privately and oftentimes inconsolably with their yearnings and losses.
Most days, I was at work in the office as the first light was spreading across the front yard, and the one feral Longhorn on the property was moseying off into the distance. If I timed it right and finished writing by midday, the creek was a perfect escape in the afternoon, when the sun was at its strongest. The water was refreshing and calm. It took my mind off the divorce and my book, which still hadn’t fully revealed itself to me and wouldn’t for a couple more years. Sometimes I would see how long I could float on my back before drifting too close to either bank and the live oaks whose gnarled branches draped over parts of the creek. It would’ve been easy to while away the afternoons and forget all my worries, if it weren’t for the snakes—not real ones but the imaginary shapes and forms I could’ve sworn were wiggling right beneath the surface. Sure, it always turned out to be a twig or a branch or a reed; anyone could see that up close, but up close isn’t where you want to figure that out.
Occasionally, as I floated, I wondered if a snakebite really was the worst way to die, though it seemed pretty horrible from how it happened in the Nueces: “His eyes were closed, his body jerking slightly. Augustus cut the boy’s shirt off—there were eight sets of fang marks, including one on his neck.”
At least Sean had been snatched from the water. To me, what seemed worse than being bitten multiple times was for there not to be any witnesses, as if it hadn’t happened—or hadn’t mattered enough for anyone to be there to pull me from the creek. And what if my waterlogged body were found tangled in some branches or lodged in a culvert four or five days after the fact? I realized some of my fear might be nothing more than paranoia, but I also couldn’t overlook the possibility that there was something beneath the placid surface, something I might not perceive or act on until it was too late.
As the months passed, the weather changed, and though I never saw a snake, I slipped once on a patch of ice near the low-water crossing and sprained my wrist. Another time, I went for a hike and ended up with chigger bites up to my knees, but otherwise, I made it through my fellowship without another major mishap.
My last night on the ranch, after I had packed my books and clothes, I happened to take one final look at the bookshelf. I had glanced at the spines and even read a couple of the novels but somehow missed one book tucked away at the far end of the bottom shelf, A Field Guide to Texas Snakes, by Alan Tennant. I turned to the section on western cottonmouths, or water moccasins, and found this: “The most widespread story about cottonmouths concerns the water-skier purportedly killed by a flurry of bites after tumbling into a ‘nest’ of these reptiles. For years various re-tellings of this fictitious event have circulated in boating circles, and a river-crossing version involving a cowboy on horseback appeared in the television special Lonesome Dove. All such episodes are untrue.”
Tennant went on to explain that cottonmouths do not nest, as the cowboys in the novel and miniseries kept saying. One reason is that, among cottonmouths, the larger snakes attack the smaller ones. Also, cottonmouths only bite fish underwater and generally swim away when humans approach. Articles I read later backed up these findings. Some sources even pointed out that water moccasins aren’t found as far south as the Nueces River.
So who was I supposed to believe, a team of herpetologists or a fiction writer? What I understood then was that McMurtry’s novel had prompted me to see what I wanted to see in that creek, and that what we imagine, whether in fiction or real life, is often more vivid and alive than what is actually staring us in the face.
It’s tempting to conclude that reading about cottonmouths at the beginning of my stay would’ve changed much of my behavior at the ranch. But that would presume my fear could have been remedied with logic. It also assumes that if today I were to take the 35-minute drive from my home in Austin to my former temporary home just outside Austin and get in the water, that I wouldn’t be looking over my shoulder for what I rationally knew wasn’t there, but could be.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Lonesome Dove, Terrified Reader.” Subscribe today.