IT was still and hot under the cherry trees, and the brassy sun seemed to have stuck in the sky halfway down to the horizon. In the dust under the trees, ground fine as flour by tractor and heavy disk plough, hundreds of white Leghorn pullets were lolling, awaiting the time when a cool breeze would draw down from the Cascades, and one after another they would rise, luxuriously stretch a sulphur-tinted wing over a bright yellow shank, and then stroll off in mysteriously selected groups to a neighboring kale field for their evening appetizer of greens.

I was filling the farthest watering trough, idly computing the number of gallons of water two thousand fourmonths-old pullets consumed daily, when a sharp ‘Kut! kut! kut!’ from the direction of the kale field warned me that something dangerous to pullets was abroad. And indeed there was, for sliding along through the deep dust was a large snake, on either side of him a rapidly forming wall of excited birds whose sharp call of danger now rose to a staccato chorus.

As the white walls closed in behind him, his snakeship speeded up, displaying an air of jaunty assurance that he could easily escape from this unsolicited bodyguard and gain the tangle of brake ferns and wild blackberry vines that monopolized the fir grove beyond. But Time, that sly old meddler who plays so many cruel jokes upon his creatures, had reduced this once-lordly marauder to a mere fourfoot caricature of his ancient self, depriving him not only of the great speed with which he used to swish through the rank vegetation of the primordial world, but of three other weapons, the lack of which nearly proved his undoing on that hot August afternoon. Ultimately, a fourth weapon proved effective when used against those impudent tormentors, any one of which his ancestors could have swallowed whole.

When speed failed to deliver him, the snake paused and cautiously raised his head. But the good old days when that simple act would have placed his eyes several feet above the level of the surrounding field availed him nothing; for his head was now only a pitiable six inches above the dust, and his view cut off by two menacing white walls.

The pause proved not only futile, but dangerous; for one long-shanked pullet that had followed him closely seized his tail, and, bracing her feet, pulled with such suddenness and vim that not only was the snake’s progress arrested, but the body was jerked back several inches through the soft dust that offered no suitable contact for the resisting abdominal scales. This daring feat was acclaimed by an enthusiastic chorus of ‘Kut, kut, kuts,’ and soon a dozen birds were jostling each other for a share in the thrilling sport. Snap! would go the beak, and a good two feet of the snake’s body would be lifted clear of the ground, the pale belly revealing the fine polish which nature gives to this part of a reptile in order to reduce friction to a minimum.

In a few moments snake baiting became so popular among the pullets that the traveler’s progress was beset with as many difficulties as was ever Bunyan’s Pilgrim, and for the first time he showed signs of alarm, even of panic, He shot desperately to one side and then to the other; but always he encountered a row of craning necks and sharp beaks that sapped his courage and turned him back.

These two white walls, flowing steadily on ahead of the prisoner and extending a couple of rods behind him, were straight and compact, suggesting a front as impenetrable as that of Harold ’s archers at Hastings. Would the serpent prove another William?

Then came the psychological moment, — that tide in the affairs of both beasts and men, — which could easily have brought victory to the pullets had they possessed even a modicum of that most precious gift of the gods — coöperation. One bird whose body had not yet rounded out, and whose comb had not yet begun to redden (still in the tomboy stage, you see!), moved by some long-dormant instinct left over from the time when the jungle fowl had both the strength and the skill to kill snakes, darted forward and delivered a telling blow just where the head joins the body. What ages of experience in fighting reptiles must have lain behind that unerring aim at this vulnerable spot! This truly vicious stroke made the snake coil like a steel spring. At sight of the swift manœuvre all the birds sprang back and stood motionless and silent, each with an alert eye fixed upon the thing which might at any moment lash out at them.

But here the snake’s second weapon failed him — lost, no doubt, during an æons-old period of degeneration. He remembered how to coil preparatory to dealing the decisive blows, and he stirred through all his loathsome length under the impulse of an ancient reflex that should have hurled him to victory. But nothing came of it. Again and again he coiled through the ensuing fight; but he never struck, however favorable the opportunity.

And why not? Had the grim joker, Time, slowly and surreptitiously robbed him of his venomous fangs as a penalty for feeding on small rodents and frogs that he could capture without the aid of poison, and had repeated emergencies such as this subsequently drilled into him the discouraging fact that the weapon was gone? Or, assuming that he was descended from non-venomous constrictors, had the same deadly absence of an incentive to keep fit rendered his muscles so flabby and his aim so uncertain that he felt himself no longer equal to the strenuous business of seizing and crushing his prey?

The snake was now halfway across the fifteen-acre orchard, and the choicest fighting spirits among the pullets had pressed to the front. Bird after bird, as though in response to Biblical prophecy, was doing her best to bruise the serpent’s head. Then came a masterful piece of strategy that would have brought victory to the hard-pressed reptile had not that arch-humorist, Time, spoiled the manœuvre centuries before it was ever made. Instead of trying to run away from an exceptionally swift assailant, the snake shot in between her legs, and, with a writhing motion that through racial inheritance is still shudderingly repulsive to a human observer, attempted to wrap himself about her. But again the prowess of his ancestors failed him, and the Leghorn pullet, her domestic imbecility momentarily supplanted by the alert instincts of the jungle fowl, leapt high in air and escaped.

Although the now thoroughly weary reptile did not again undertake to trap an assailant in this particular fashion, he did make use of a part of the trick as a means of protecting his head and gaining ground. For as soon as a bird started to close in upon him he would dart between her legs, when she would shoot upward, and he would slip forward a good six feet before his way was again blocked.

By this time the snake had reached a watering trough some seven feet long and six inches high. Badly mauled, but not yet crippled, he stretched himself at full length close beside it, and slowly flattened out until he seemed gradually to melt into the box on the one side and the dust on the other. Bird after bird turned an inquiring eye upon the trough, saw nothing unusual there, and, presto! in the hen mind there was no longer a serpent in the entire universe. Accordingly, the birds gradually began to stroll away, spreading out over the orchard in utter forgetfulness of the stirring experience through which they had just passed.

With a movement so slow that my eyes could scarcely detect it, the snake raised his head above the side of the trough. Higher and steadily higher it crept, until the repulsive wedge-shaped thing was several inches above the top. But at sight of it a pullet, strolling up for a drink, gave a sharp ‘Kut!’ which again transformed the entire flock into alert and eager warriors. Back they came in white swarms, milling about the trough to a stirring chorus of ‘Kut, kut, kuts.’

In sheer desperation, the snake tried the inside of the trough; but the commotion which he raised in the water drew about him such a throng of enemies that he quickly slid over the side and sped away in the direction of the kale field from which he had started. Then the pullets let loose upon him the acme of their fury. They hammered at his head with a rhythm that suggested the driving of a tent peg at a circus; they tweaked his tail in derisive glee; or, taking a firmer hold, slapped his groggy body into the dust and jerked it out again with a fury that epitomized the hatred of all the animal kingdom for this Cain among the beasts. Suddenly the blind will to fight on seemed to snap within him, and he gave over the struggle and lay still, the body no longer responding to the punishment inflicted upon it. Once motionless, he quickly became to his assailants only a brown stripe in the dust, and again they began to disperse.

For some time the snake did not stir; then slowly and with the utmost caution he again raised his head, pivoting it about at a rate of progress so uncannily uniform as to suggest a panoramic camera photographing the field. The birds had now wandered so far away that they did not detect the motion. Stealthily lowering his head, he again glided toward the kale field; but before he had gone three rods the pullets were once more upon him, and in the face of this last assault he resorted to the only weapon left him. He slowly wound himself into a coil so tight that one could not have touched the ground with a knife blade at any point short of the circumference. At the movement the birds sprang back as usual; but as he remained motionless they again slowly scattered.

So I stood and watched for the next manœuvre of this remarkable creature that, in its patience and resourcefulness, so closely parallels human intelligence, embodying, I suspect, nature’s final effort along a certain line of evolution — the attempt to produce a limbless vertebrate that would maintain the balance of power against the limbed varieties. But the effort failed; and one of the limbed vertebrates, for want of any sufficiently restraining force, is rapidly overrunning the earth, destroying it as he goes.

Nevertheless, the guile of the serpent is no empty phrase, and the Biblical story of Eve and her resourceful tempter is doubtless profoundly symbolic of a long-forgotten racial experience in which the balance of nature came near being restored; in which event the astounding thing called civilization would never have come to pass. Not until the sun was low and the field empty of birds did the snake stir. Then he raised his battered head with infinite caution and, after satisfying himself that no enemies were in sight, slid rapidly away toward the kale field.

And the moral of the tale? In this little drama were involved three degenerate classes of a dying globe. I, the audience, watched the enfeebled actors largely through the medium of cold intelligence, that unique and comparatively new weapon which has won for the human animal his present supremacy, but which, in all probability, will ultimately accomplish his destruction. True, there flared up in me the slowly dying urge to kill, that fundamental instinct upon which evolution itself rests; but my simian-born curiosity, overgrown to the proportions of the scientific mind, stayed my hand.

That night, however, the elemental savage which still slumbers at the bottom of all of us reasserted himself, and in dreams I wrestled mightily with huge serpents that stole upon me with a low whispering of horrid scales out of an infernal and fathomless silence. Probably in that nightmare was unfolded the span of man’s pre-human emotional life, covering its passage through the reptilian age.

Is terror, after all, man’s richest and most fundamental experience?