We were living in Gbindiri in the North of Ghana at the time. It was 1986 or 87. Our house helper, Matthew came running in. “Get your gun! Get your gun!” he said. “There’s a snake!”
I had to calm him down. First of all I didn’t have a gun. That was hard for the local people to understand, but in this day and age it’s difficult and ticklish for an expat to own a gun. But I had inherited a crossbow that had been left by a previous missionary in the house that we had stayed in in Bunkpurugu. The bowstring was badly frayed though. I had ordered a new one from the States, but on about the third or fourth firing it had snapped. Now I was back to the frayed one. Anyway, I grabbed the questionable weapon, and we were off to slay the savage aggressor.
Matthew took me to the area of scrub brush and grass behind our house. The grass had recently been burned away by one of the usual dry season brush fires making beasties like this easier to find. He showed me a small tree that forked into a double trunk forming a V just above the base. Just below the V where the base flared out there was a hollow opening between the roots. Within the miniature cavern I could see two shiny black coils glistening in the darkness.
Well, this was no immediate threat as I had imagined, so I was able to take my time and prepare myself for the assault on the reptilian stronghold. I strung the bow, and much as William Tell himself must have done, I put my foot through the brace at the end of the stock and drew the bowstring up until it clicked into the cocked position. I choose one of the few quarrels that still had most of its feathers intact, and placed it into the grove. Thus armed, I prepared to meet the foe.
I stood back about eight feet from the dark opening where my enemy lurked in unsuspecting silence. I squeezed the trigger and released the deadly missile. “Thunk!” the arrow stood quivering harmlessly in the wood of the root nearest the opening. No, William Tell would not be impressed this day.
I loaded my second dart. Moving up to about seven feet, I held the crossbow out away from my body pistol-style, greatly reducing the distance between weapon and target (since these quarrels were obviously highly inaccurate). I released! Success! The arrow slammed into darkness of the hollow. But, no. It only struck dirt beneath the coil. The sleeping brute was not even disturbed.
Now with two strikes against him the mighty Casey moved to the plate. With a curl of his lip and death in his eyes he loaded another arrow. There would be no miss this time! I edged even closer than before, held the weapon out before me… and fired!
This time the quarrel struck home, the shaft penetrating deep into one of the black coils. The coils began to shift and move, and we heard a sound that could only be rising from the pit of hell itself. It was a loud hiss. Louder and deeper than I had ever expected to hear from a snake. It did not go, “ssssssss”. It went more like, “Hhhaaaahhhhhhh”. Suddenly the great hero was feeling a little more like a small, frightened missionary who didn’t know what he had gotten himself into. This dark serpent was suddenly seeming much bigger than he had seemed previously.
Despite the shock of these developments I gathered my courage and prepared another shaft for my grisly guest. Bravely I edged closer than ever to the maw of darkness. The metal foot brace at the business end of the bow cannot have been more than two feet from the opening. I squeezed the trigger….”THWANG!” The frayed old bowstring had unceremoniously chosen this pivotal moment to give up its tightly strung existence and had snapped. It whipped back at me and like to have taken my head off, but miraculously it missed. (Thank you, Lord). I never did find the misguided arrow. Maybe it embedded itself completely in the ground somewhere, or soared far away.
Well, now I was stripped of my means of attacking from a safe distance. Now it would have to be one on one, Mano a snako, Hand to ah…er…fang combat. I and my faithful Matthew used our machete and sharpened a stick for each of us. Now, how to press the attack? I was no longer really interested in getting close enough to that hole to jab in the stick. I decided to employ more strategic tactics. I moved around behind the tree to check out the situation more fully. There I found that there was a third trunk rising from that base. It was broken off at a height of about three feet and appeared to be hollow. I thrust my stick down into the hole and began to jab around. My probing was greeted again with a renewed burst of the hellish hiss, “Hhhhhaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!” Matthew, standing in front where he could see into the hollow squealed with delight, “You’re getting him! You’re getting him! Keep doing it! Keep doing it!”
After keeping up this barrage from above for a while I decided that I would go around out front to see what Matthew was seeing. I took one or maybe two steps to my left to go around the tree, and then it happened. The sight is etched into the back of my retina forever. The black head of hell had snapped up out of the broken trunk and was only a few feet from my face. I froze, and time seemed to freeze with me. I looked into that open mouth. There I saw distinctly… a hole. It was in the center of the lower jaw…. and I knew. I knew that this snake was a spitting cobra. When the next second ticked in the real world this snake was going to launch a stream of poison spit into my eyes, and I was going to be blind. He was so close to me that in my confusion he would likely bite me and I would be injected with poison too.
I don’t have a clear recollection of what did happen when the next second did tick off, but I do know what happened. Matthew stepped up from the front of the tree. Bringing his stick down between the two trunks of the V with force and amazing accuracy he smacked the spitter on the top of the head and drove him down back into the hole. Any movement that we saw after that appeared to be only reflexes. After a lot of “making sure” we tore away the back of the rotting tree and pulled out the victim. There they were! The telltale orange blotches on the throat of the black snake. It was definitely an African spitting Cobra, about five feet long. One thing was certain. I had seen God’s hand of protection that day.
And that, my friends, is how I killed a spitting cobra in Africa.
(OK, OK, if you want to get technical – that is how Matthew killed a spitting cobra in Africa. Sheez!)
Note: The hole that I saw in the snake’s mouth was not where the spit would have come out. That hole is at the edge of the lip and very small. What I saw was actually a sensory pit. But it still was a spitter so what the heck.