What in the devils basket of creatures was clinging to the stall wall? It was the size of two fists. It drops down into the shavings and lands in the shadows. I explode backwards out of the stall in fright pulling the hose out of the bucket and momentarily spraying the bay mare in the face. She bounds to the side. I drop the hose as a giant toad springs out into the light. I snatch the hose up off the ground and crimp off the flow. My heartbeat thuds loudly all the way up into my brain. The mare eyes me with distain, water drips from her forehead.
I step back into the stall and give the horse a rub on the shoulder, “Sorry girl, the hideous toad freaked me out.”
She blinks and turns her butt towards me. I sigh. Winner, winner, chicken dinner, I’m making friends everywhere today.
I stick the hose back into the bucket. I gasp as another toad lumbers up the wall beside the pail. He is easily the size of a soft ball with thick lumpy luminous skin. He flicks out his tongue. I shudder with disgust.
I finish the watering at the barn. I’m no longer frightened by numerous toads clinging to the various stall walls. It’s not like they are aggressive with sharp pointy teeth, or have a venomous bite.
I stroll back to the house listening to the new sounds of nature in this tropical land, all of them mysterious and unknown to a northern Canadian girl. The warm breeze was a soothing goodnight kiss. I was looking forward to a decent sleep. I wondered if my new roommate Tabitha would sit up on her bed and stare daggers at me all night? I think I could even sleep through that.
I have no choice but to pass through the living room to bed. Most of the Fatterod family is up watching TV.
“How’d it go?” Tracey asks. She is snuggled up on the couch with the dogs, Salt and Pepper.
Dick is occupying an entire length of the couch all by himself.
I grimace, “Wonderful, except for the enormous toads in the stalls. I almost peed my pants when I saw the first one.”
Dick laughs, “They’re cane toads. Zack and I saw one the size of a trash can lid. Didn’t we Zack.”
Zack pokes his head up from under a blanket, “Yeah, now that was disgusting,” he groans.
I smile at Zack, “You should have caught him and put him in your teachers desk.”
“Hey now.” Tracey says, “Don’t give him any ideas he gets enough all by himself.”
“I like that one though,” Zack pipes up. He gives me an honest grin, “Thanks Debby.”
Tracey sits up and pats Pepper on the back, “What you don’t know, is that cane toads are poisonous.”
I stare at Tracey, “No way?” I protest, thinking it’s a fine time to tell me now.
“It’s from their skin,” explains Dick, “they secrete a poison through their skin.”
“It’ll turn you into an Ogre.” Zack said in a gravely tone.
Tracey laughs, “It will not. But it will make dogs sick if they bite a toad, or eat one.” She strokes Salt on the head, “That’s why I keep the dogs inside at night.”
I nod and yawn at the same time. Then I raise my hand and wave, “Well, thanks for the toad nightmares. I’m going to bed. See you in the morning.”
I enter the den of Tabitha, the light to the bathroom is on. She is lying in bed facing the wall. Perfect, no glaring eyes. I get the cold shoulder tonight— a little practice for future marriage.
The next morning I start early feeding and watering.
As I finish watering the far end barn, I notice a man making his way across the sparse grass in my direction. He’s a lean and petite fellow wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a ball cap. His focus is on the ground although he is coming directly towards me. He finally looks my way; as though he were a marionette and some overseeing God had forced him to do so. I smile at him as he nears.
He returns it with a slight upwards turn of his mouth. He slows his pace and sizes me up with his eyes. It is a character assessment and nothing more, no sexual overtones.
He stops square in front of me and sticks out his hand, “I’m Owen, I do the yard work around here, and I’ll be emptying the manure hauler after you clean stalls.” His brown eyes are kind, and his slightly crooked nose tells me life has punched him in the face.
I accept his hand and we exchange a firm squeeze. “I’m Debby.”
He tilts his head, “ Yeah, I heard about you. You came a long way to work here. Have you known the Fatterods long?”
I shake my head, “No, I took the job through a friend of a friend.”
He narrows his eyes and looks into the tree line behind me. “You best be careful around here,” he warns.
I narrow my eyes to match his, “What do you mean?”
“You’re from Canada?“ He asks.
“Yes.” I answer wondering if there is a bounty on Canadians.
“We have a variety of snakes you should get your brain wrapped around. You know the little canal that runs along the edge of the property? I’ll bet my Aunt Millie’s best brassiere that it has a few cottonmouth water moccasins living in it. They can pretty near kill a person if they get their fangs on you. And then we have the coral snake, they’re not so aggressive but damn if they feel trapped? More poison for ya.” He leans his head into mine, “You mean to say Dick and Tracey ain’t warned you about none of that stuff?”
“I give him a wide eyed head shake, “No. Nothing. I met the toads last night on my own.”
“Pisha. Toads ain’t nothing compared to the snakes and fire ants.”
“Fire ants?” I question, rubbing my arms and brushing a stray piece of grass off my leg. “
He shakes his head, “ Damn those Fatterods, they should prepare these foreigners better.”
I nod enthusiastically.
He turns on his heels and waves to me to follow.
I travel on his heels as he comes to the edge of an underused area by the shrubs. I see a mound of soil.
He stops a few feet away. “Today I’ll be treating this anthill to get rid of the ants. These fire ants are out of their mind angry insects. They are whippersnapper quick. Once one climbs on your leg and bites. It’ll hurt like salt in a road rash. And then when you shake your leg to get the rest off, it’s a signal for the others on your legs to chow down too. So running and jumping around is only causes more bites. When they take a chomp, they inject poison into your skin. The bite sites can become blown up with pus and such in a hurry. Some people react bad— so bad they die.” He gives me a solemn look, “Try not to die. It’s my job to dispose of the dead stuff.”
Owen grins, “Crazy ain’t it? I’m from Idaho and I love it here. But damn you gotta watch where you put your feet in this country. Don’t worry yourself sick about it though, I truly doubt you’ll ever see a poison snake. I ain’t seen one yet.”
I rub my forehead and chuckle, “Yeah, but I’m pretty lucky.” I look back to the barn, “I guess I better get back to it.”
I pause and take a deep breath, “Hey,” I exhale. “What happened to the last girl that worked here? Julie?”
He looks around the yard, and to me it seems as though he wants to make sure he’s not overheard.
“Julie was a nice girl but she didn’t take any shit. Believe me, after you’ve been here a while, there’s more shit going on around here, than what’s in these here stalls. Julie is getting married to a local fellow; he owns acreage a ways away. Julie’s pay checks from Dick were bouncing for her last month or so of working here. So she quit. But don’t you worry none, her fiancé will get it out of Dick. He’s a tough man.” He hesitates and then continues, “You got a fiancé?”
“No.” I kind of giggle while my chest tightens, “What about Tabitha? Why do you think she hates me so much?”
Owen grunts, “Julie and Tabby were thick as thieves, but that Tabby girl doesn’t want to see the truth of her parents. She thinks you stole Julies job. Don’t worry, she’ll figure out who you really are. In the meantime, watch your back. At least you know the danger of the critters. It’s the snake in the grass people you have to worry about.”
Owen was a wise man— Hindsight.
I was a stubborn person, I tended to stick things out. How bad could it really get?