Arthur and John were spending the afternoon on the riverbank when the snake first approached them. The boys (though Arthur was hardly a boy anymore and John was nearing fifteen) were tossing rocks into the shallow, slow-moving water. Copper kept chasing the splashes, burying his face into the water only to emerge confused when he found nothing but stones and silt.
After throwing bigger and bigger stones in, Arthur heaved a rock big enough that it created a substantial wave of water lapping at the shore, but when he turned to boast about the feat, he found John wasn’t looking at him at all.
“Did you see that splash?” he asked, a little annoyed at the lack of attention.
“Look at this snake!” John cried gleefully, turning around without any indication he had heard his brother’s question.
“Snake?” Arthur asked, crouching down beside the teen. Sure enough, there was a little green snake wrapped around John’s wrist. It couldn’t have been more than a foot long, and seemed very calm. “It just let you pick it up?”
“No, he crawled…slithered right up to me,” John said, lifting his arm higher so they could see their small visitor more clearly. “Guess he likes me.”
“He’d probably like me too,” Arthur said, holding out his hand toward the snake. The reptile flicked out its tongue at the young man’s fingers and then slowly travelled from John’s wrist into the waiting palm. John’s face immediately fell.
“No fair! You already have a best friend.”
As if summoned by the words, Copper joined them at that moment, sticking his nose between them to smell what they were looking at. He sniffed at the snake and a few seconds later Arthur was grimacing at the fresh snake poop on his hand.
“Hey, go on, Copper!” John said harshly, shoving the dog’s face away and reclaiming his snake very gently from Arthur’s grasp. “He scared him.”
“Fine, he’s your best friend,” Arthur drawled, wiping his hand in the grass. “Least mine doesn’t poop on me!”
“He won’t poop on me,” John insisted, gazing fondly at the snake, who was now slowly winding its way through his fingers. “What should I name him?”
Arthur ruffled Copper’s fur, keeping the dog back and pushing himself to his feet. “Maybe you should show him to Dutch and Hosea first,” he suggested. “Dunno how they’re going to feel about that little feller as a new campmate.”
Hosea’s reaction to John’s new friend was about as expected.
“Well, isn’t he a charming fellow?” the conman said, lowering his newspaper and leaning forward to get a better look at the snake John held out. “Where’d you find him?”
“Apparently it’s the other way around,” Arthur said, leaning against the table and crossing his arms. “The snake found John.”
“You’re just jealous,” the teen replied matter-of-factly, and Arthur scowled.
“I’m jealous,” Hosea interjected. “Snakes are fascinating creatures. But if he’s your companion, John, then you’re in charge of him. Arthur, nor I, nor Dutch is going to take responsibility. We told Arthur the same when he brought Copper home.”
The dog lying at their feet lifted his head, and Dutch, approaching from across camp, did much the same when his name passed Hosea’s lips.
“What are we talking about?” he asked, joining them. “Have we found another dog?”
“Nope,” Arthur replied, as John held out his hand and declared,
Dutch leaned back a bit from the reptile suddenly in his face. “Oh, I can see that.”
“He’s mine,” John said, “Wanna hold him?”
“No, son, that’s fine-.”
But John was already setting the snake in Dutch’s hands and the outlaw had little choice but to curl his fingers around the small animal to keep from dropping it. Arthur crossed his arms grumpily.
“Yeah, it’s fine if Dutch holds him, but not if I do.”
“The little guys seems to like you,” Hosea grinned at Dutch, and his partner presented a weak smile, keeping a careful eye on the snake, which was looping itself around his fingers. “I’m sure the feeling is mutual?”
“I wouldn’t say I love him,” Dutch began, then noted the way John’s expression fell and added, “But I can see he’s a handsome fellow. For a snake.”
“He needs a name.” John squinted at the snake. “What’s a good name for a snake?”
“Slither,” Arthur said immediately, and John rolled his eyes.
“Not as dumb as you.”
“Theodore,” Hosea piped up and both boys laughed.
“That’s too fancy!” John replied. “How ‘bout…Leaf, because he’s green?”
“A bit generic.” Dutch hmmed, lifting the snake to his eye level. “What do you think of ‘Hemmingway’?”
“As if that’s any better than ‘Theodore’,” Hosea snorted. He leaned forward, studying the snake’s face. “Ah, look at this, boys! It appears he’s got something in common with Dutch here!”
Arthur and John moved in, squinting at the snake’s small snout, and the older brother let out a laugh. “He’s growing a moustache?”
Indeed, there was a discoloration of scales under the snake’s nostrils, giving him the appearance of having a neat moustache. Dutch stroked his own, experimental facial hair with his free hand and raised his eyebrows.
“He’s a fashionable bastard,” the outlaw said, nodding at the snake with a show of respect. He got a tongue flicking out in return and Hosea’s face breaking into a wide smile.
“Say, now that we know Dutch has a third son taking after him in looks, what if we named this snake-.”
“Dutch Junior!” John cried as Arthur shouted out the same while laughing. “Okay,” the teen said as the snake was returned to his hands, “He’s Dutch Junior now.”
Dutch shook his head as Junior curled into a series of loops on John’s palm. “Maybe I’ll finally have a son who doesn’t argue or test me every step of the way.”
“Yeah,” Arthur replied, looking pointedly at John, but the teen was too busy with his snake to notice. Pushing away from the table, the young man left the scene, whistling for Copper as he headed for the horses. Dutch took the spot he vacated, settling beside Hosea as the conman asked,
“You going to keep Junior in a cracker box or something?”
“Naw,” John said, “He’d be sad in something that small. He can just stay with me.” Looking around, he added, “I’d better find him something to eat. You think he likes frogs? Or crickets?”
Without waiting for a reply, the teen started off for the riverbank again, snake now looped around his narrow wrist. Dutch and Hosea watched him go, then the outlaw titled his head toward the conman.
“Either he’ll lose it in three minutes, or we’re stuck with a snake for the next seven years. …How long do snakes live for?”
“In any case, it’ll teach him responsibly,” Hosea replied, picking up his book once more. “And a good life lesson is something you can never pass up.”
“You see me as a teacher?”
“I see you as a father,” Hosea corrected, and Dutch smiled.
“Ain’t they supposed to be the same thing?”
“Surely,” Hosea said, opening his book, “And you mange to be both when so many aren’t.”
Dutch Junior soon became an integral part if the family, as much as Copper, or the horses, or the outlaws themselves. Far from slithering away at the first chance, like most of them assumed he would, Junior stuck around. Even if John set the snake on the ground, the little creature would wiggle his way after the teen, much to John’s delight.
Susan was not very happy with the new addition at first, saying Junior was sure to get into her things and scare the living daylights out of her, but she soon warmed to him, and even fashioned the snake a little hidey hole out of a cracker box and some moss and stones.
Junior did give Dutch multiple heart attacks by falling out his boots when the outlaw shook them out in the morning, and Hosea laughed every single time his partner yelped and jumped back as Junior slid out into the grass, looking confused.
Copper, by Arthur’s training, didn’t try to eat Junior at all, and sometimes tried to play with the snake, hopping around him and barking loudly. Anyone nearby was quick to pick the snake up when that happened, lest he be squashed by the excitable pup’s paws.
But Junior was really John’s snake. He curled around the teen’s wrist while the boy ate dinner or agonized over the writing Dutch was trying to teach him, and the snake box Susan made was set right beside John’s bedroll. He caught frogs for Junior, and crickets, lots of crickets, though it was clear that Junior’s freedom allowed him to catch his own food. John liked doing it, and he loved that snake, which was why he became so distressed when, one day, Junior simply wasn’t there.
“I’ve looked everywhere,” he wailed to Hosea the afternoon Junior vanished. “He’s not in his box or under your cot!”
“Did you check all the boots?” Hosea asked, “And under our hats?”
“I’m not stupid,” John said, “I know where Junior likes to hide, and he’s not anywhere.”
“Let’s look for him together,” Hosea offered, “And we can ask Arthur too.”
In the end, all five of them joined the hunt, scoring every inch of the ground around camp, and checking all the spots Copper liked to bury dead things, though they doubted the dog would have eaten Junior. It was evening when Hosea, the last of the search party but John still hunting, put his hand on the teen’s shoulder.
“He is a snake, John. A wild animal. He might just have left.”
“But he wouldn’t abandon me,” John mumbled, eyes still darting over the ground like the snake would suddenly appear. “He couldn’t just leave….”
Hosea’s gaze softened and he pushed John gently toward the campfire. “We’ll keep an eye out for him, but you need to eat something, alright?”
“But I want to-.”
“Go get dinner, son,” Dutch injected, joining them. “Can’t search properly on an empty stomach.”
John went reluctantly, but he went, and Hosea sighed, letting his arm fall to his side. “He’s really down and out because of that snake.”
“Hey, even I miss the little guy,” Dutch said. “Of course he would be sad about it.”
Hosea rubbed his chin. “You don’t think we could find another one, do you?”
“Another snake as clingy as Junior? I doubt it.”
“We could try,” Hosea said, lifting his eyes to Dutch’s face, and the outlaw looked at him for a moment, then at John, sitting slumped by the fire, and he nodded.
“I’ll try, I guess.”
Later that night, John dragged himself to bed after being told to go to sleep no less than twelve times by both Dutch and Hosea. He kept hoping Junior would show up while they were sitting around the fire, but no such luck. Eventually he retreated to his bedroll, sitting down on the edge of the mat to yank his boots off and set them nearby. He tipped them purposefully on their sides, in case Junior wanted to slither into the toe as he sometimes did. Then he cast one last look around, peered into the empty snake box, and finally pulled the blanket back to get into bed.
And there, in little snake loops on the bedroll, was a green snake.
The reptile slthered about a bit as the blankets were disrupted around him, but didn’t have much time to unwind before John was scooping him up and running out of the tent yelling at the top of his lungs.
“JUNIOR’S BACK! HE CAME BACK!”
Arthur started awake from where he was propped against a tree and scrambled to his feet, jamming his hat on his head and Copper began barking. “No shit! Where was he?”
“In my bed! He was in my bed!” John cried, hopping up and down in front of his brother. “He never left me!”
Hosea leaned into Dutch where they were seated on a log by the fire. “So you did find one?”
Dutch shook his head, eyes wide and smile large. “Nope. Couldn’t find a single new snake.”
The conman stared. “So that’s really-?”
Dutch let out a loud, hearty laugh, slapping the log with his palm. “It’s Junior!”
Hosea shook his head, watching as John bounced around Susan, Junior clutched to his chest as Arthur followed behind, Copper at his heels. A grin lit up Hosea’s face at the pure, unfiltered joy on his youngest son’s face.
“Well,” he said with a light chuckle, “I guess Junior ain’t so wild after all…least not any more than the rest of us.”
“He’s certainly got character,” Dutch agreed, rising to his feet and holding out his hand, “Come on, let’s share in this boy’s happiness.”
Hosea took the offered hand and together they left the fireside to join in the celebration of Dutch Junior’s remarkable return.