Later that summer, we were helping her Pa bale hay for extra cash. It was a hot, sticky task that we didn’t enjoy, but we kept our mouths shut and worked until sunset. Libby would catch the hay as it fell from the baler and I would stack it behind us. I could tell Libby was getting tired, we’d been working almost eight hours, and I knew she wasn’t about to ask her Pa for a break. I tapped her shoulder and told her to get some water. She nodded, wiping the sweat off her forehead and reached for the jug. When she came back instead of handing her the bales to stack, I hauled them past her and stacked them myself. She gave me a hard stare and started to argue.
“Don’t worry, Libby. We’re almost done,” I told her. She finally leaned against the stack of bales, letting out an exhausted sigh. I worked like that for another half an hour, making Libby sit back down when she tried to start stacking again. As we got to the end of the field and the tractor slowed, I reached for the last bale of hay, glad to be done.
I heard the ghostly rattle before I saw the snake. I froze, the hay bale in mid-toss, every nerve in my body screaming in fear. From the corner of my eye, I saw Libby jump up with a scream.
“Pa!” she yelled for her father while stepping towards me.
“Don’t,” I shouted, my muscles quivering from the weight of the hay I was holding up. “Don’t move, Libby.”
The Copperhead was the biggest I’d ever seen, lying coiled in the spot where the hay bale I was holding had been. Its head was up, poised to strike. I felt the wagon stop and heard Libby’s pa climbing down. I didn’t take my eyes off the deadly snake that was staring me down. I knew that the venom from a snake that size would kill me before we could even make it to the hospital in Middlesboro.
I stood as still as I could; sweat making itchy paths down my back. Jackson climbed onto the wagon next to the baler, eyeing the snake, then me. He moved slowly, taking in the scene. Libby was trembling as she watched the snake and me. She looked at her pa, hoping he would help me.
Libby’s pa just stood there, staring at me. Another stream of filthy tobacco flew from his mouth. I saw his face, almost smiling, and I knew that he didn’t care if the snake bit me or not.
Libby must’ve realized that at the same moment as me because I could hear her starting to whimper. I looked down at the snake and then back up at Libby’s pa. Then I looked at Libby and heard her pleading with me to hold on. My arms were burning and I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold the bale up much longer. If I moved, the snake would strike, sinking its deadly fangs into my skin.
“Please, Pa,” she whimpered, her eyes begging him. “Help him, please.” He spit again but didn’t answer. Libby looked back at me and I knew instantly what she was going to do.
“Libby, don’t,” I begged, my voice full of fear. Eyes locked with mine, she took a step forward. The snaked hissed, its head moving with Libby’s movement. Jackson stared at Libby and then back at me as Libby took another step forward.
“You’ve got to jump fast, Cole,” Libby whispered as the snake shifted its gaze from her to me again. “It won’t be distracted for long.”
“Libby, no,” I begged again. My arms were really shaking now. Fear welled up in my throat as Libby took another step.
“Stop!” Jackson shouted, making Libby jump back. “Move again and I’ll tan your hide so hard you won’t sit for a week.” Libby’s face paled but she didn’t move. Jackson walked towards me without fear. The snake was still watching me as my arms shook.
He reached out just as my arms gave out and the hay bale dropped. The snake lunged towards me, fangs out. Jackson grabbed its head just before it bit into my leg. I fell backwards, landing hard on my ass. I shoved myself further back until I was up against the stack of hay. Libby rushed over to me, her hands going to my shoulders.
Jackson still held the snake, its jaw snapping. He stepped towards us as he caressed the snake’s head. He knelt down, snake in hand, until he was eye level. The snake’s gleaming fangs were inches from my face. I felt the bile rising in my throat as little black dots flashed in my eyes.
“You afraid of snakes, boy?” his voice was cold and empty. “Hmm?” He looked at me, his eyes dark and calculating.
“Yes, sir,” I whispered, my voice barely audible.
“You better be,” his voice was menacing as he ran a finger down the top of the snake’s scaly head. “Keep your hands off her.” The threat in his warning was unmistakable as his eyes moved to Libby’s hands, still clenching my shoulders.
Jackson stood up slowly and stepped off the wagon. He laid the snake on the ground and it slithered away, silent and docile. He turned back to us, spitting into the dirt.
“Get off, both of you,” he growled, jerking his head. “Get on home.”
Willing my muscles to move, I scrambled up, stumbling to the edge and jumping down. Libby followed me as I ran to the edge of the tree line. Her pa climbed back onto the tractor and drove it slowly out of the field.
“Cole?” Libby put a hand on my shoulder but I shrugged her off as I walked towards the trees. When she started to follow, I turned quickly and yelled.
“Stay!” I saw her shrink back, quickly dragging her eyes to the ground. I wanted to apologize but my need for keeping her away was stronger. I half-ran to the nearest tree, bent over, and promptly threw up everything I had eaten that day.
When my stomach was empty, I gagged, heaving until the last of the strength left my body. I stumbled back and collapsed in the tall grass. I felt Libby’s hand grip my shoulder and turn me towards her. Her face was pale but her eyes were full of fierce determination as she forced me to look at her. I stared at her, seeing the fear leave her eyes, replaced by sorrow. Not uttering a word, she wrapped her arms around me. My exhausted body gave up as I leaned into her. She laid my head on her chest and I did something I swore I’d never do in front of her. I cried.
When writing a story, it helps to have a visual of what your characters look like. Having an actual picture of someone to base your character on helps you keep track of even the most minor details.