by Ellis Parker Butler
"I remember meeting a snake killer once, in the forest of Fontainebleau," said the man with the beard, "and I asked him -- he was an old, old man -- what he got for killing the vipers, and he said half a sou apiece. Now, half a --"
"Speaking of half a sou and snakes," said the stout, bald-headed man, "reminds me of the time I was managing Princess Fifi. That was her stage name, and when I took her up she was doing the bifurcated lady act. It was a good act. Pull aside the curtain and there she was -- just half a lady, sawed off at the waist -- swinging on a trapeze. It was a great hit in those days, until all the side shows got them. Her name was Sue -- Sue Maxon. That's how the mention of half a sou happened to make me think of her.
"Of course, you understand, she wasn't sawed in two. That was an optical delusion, done with mirrors; and a good act it was, until our mirrors got broken in the wreck at Connersville. So I talked it over with Sue -- we'd been married a couple of years then -- and she said, 'Chuck it!' She said the bifurcated lady act was played out, anyway, and her idea was to go back to snake charming.
"In the old days Sue had been a star snake charmer. Not one of these modern petticoats that stand up and sort of slosh round a toothless old snake or two, but the real thing. She didn't care what snake you gave her. She would take a new rattler, fresh from a hot rock, and make it act like a tame kitten. Oh, she was the real thing!
"Princess Fifi -- that was the name she charmed under in the old days. So when we had our mirror outfit broken, like I said. Princess Fifi said, 'Tom, let's chuck this show and the bifurcated act. I've got a hunch we could make a hit in Australia or Austria or some new place with the snake act.' I was willing enough. I had enough in the bank to get a good bunch of reptiles and pay our fare and get a swell rig for Sue, and we took passage on a steamer for Austria. Australia was too far away for me.
"Well, luck seemed dead against us. First the wreck of the train, and then a shipwreck. It was a terrible night, and when Sue and I came ashore -- for you bet I wasn't going to let Sue get far away, if I had to follow her to the bottom of the sea -- we had no idea where we were, and we hadn't a thing but the clothes on our backs.
"'Sue,' I said, 'this beats the Dutch, doesn't it? Stranded right on a real strand, not a cent, wet through, and the devil to pay generally!'
"'Oh, brace up, Tom!" she said. 'It ain't so bad! I don't care where we are, I can make food and lodging. All I need any day is a snake or two, and I'll get carfare out of the natives; and if there ever was a stretch of landscape that looked like a home for snakes, this is it. I know snakes and their habits, and I'll have a half dozen in a half hour. Cut me a forked stick.'
"Well, I cut a forked stick, and off Sue went one way and off I went another, Sue after snakes and me to see the lay of the land. 'Fair-sized town over there,' I said, when I got back. 'Got any snakes?' 'No,' said Sue, sort of worried; 'but I'll get 'em. Don't you worry. This is just the place for snakes. Big rock hill over there that must be alive with rattlers, but I haven't gone there yet. I've been looking for water snakes along the creek. There ought to be millions of them, but I didn't see them.'
"I ain't fond of snakes myself, but I hadn't anything else to do, so I started in to help Sue. She scooted for the rock hill to get some rattlers, and I went to the creek. It ought to have been full of moccasins and black snakes and such, but I hunted until sundown and not a snake! Sue came back evidently plumb discouraged.
"'Tom,' she said, 'I can't understand it. That is the prettiest bit of Godforsaken rock hill I ever saw, and it ought to be so full of snakes they would be piled on top of each other, and there's not a snake! Not a snake!'
"'I can't understand it,' I said. 'That creek is the snakiest looking bit I ever saw, and I didn't see any snakes.'
"The outcome was we steered clear of the small town and went over the hill. 'Tell you what,' said Sue, 'I've just got to have a snake of some sort. I'm going to use a garter snake if I can't get any other kind. And right here is the place where garter snakes ought to be by dozens. Right in this field.'
"So over the wall she hopped, and she hunted for hours, but not a snake could either of us scare up. Sue just sat down on a stone and cried. 'I can't make it out!' she says. 'I can't understand it!' Neither could I. When there is a stretch of land most favorable for snakes, and no snakes there, something is wrong.
"'Sue,' I said. I'll bet there is an epidemic among these snakes! That's what's up! Something has killed them all off!'
"'Fiddlesticks!' she says. 'Snakes don't have epidemics --'
"Just then there come over the hill one of the natives. I didn't know what language he spoke, so I tried American. 'Say,' I said, 'what kind of a country it this you've got here, anyway?'
"He looked at me a minute. ''Tis a foine counthry," he said. 'Sorry a foiner counthry ye'll foind annywhere than ould Oirelind!'
"I looked at Sue. 'You're all right, Sue,' I said, 'only St. Patrick beat you to the snakes by about fifteen hundred years, that's all!'"