You would think that not seeing a rattlesnake all summer on our Sterling Creek acreage south of Jacksonville would allow me to drop my guard.

You would think that not seeing a rattlesnake all summer on our Sterling Creek acreage south of Jacksonville would allow me to drop my guard.

Instead, it has only increased my nervous jitters. After all, we have had close encounters with buzz worms each summer since we bought the old place eight years ago.

I know they are out there. Waiting.

The image of a lurking reptilian presence was coiled in the back of my mind when I stepped out of the driver's side of the car upon arriving home the other evening. My left foot landed on top of what I hoped with all my heart was a very fat garden hose.

That's when the hose slithered.

Words that would make a sailor blush shattered the evening quiet. Maureen leaped out the passenger side, fearing I was having another hissy fit over the vagaries of life.

"Agrhhhh! It's a rattler!" I shouted while breaking into a high-stepping jig that would have impressed a veteran Riverdance trouper.

The snake silently slithered its three feet of scaly self into a telltale strike pose and flattened its nasty head into a triangular shape, looking exactly like a dreaded you-know-what.

I could almost feel the venomous fangs sinking deep into my calf. Darkness seemed to be closing in as I breathed my last.

Maureen's helpless laughter is not what I expect to hear when I leave this world. Surely my departure would warrant a few sniffles, perhaps even a tear or two rolling down her cheeks.

Yet there I was, about to expire, listening to my wife giggle.

"It's just Gus," she said as she wiped away tears of laughter. "You are going to hurt him jumping around like that."

Gus would be a monstrous gopher snake, the low-life jokester that has been sneaking about our place all summer. Apparently born with a sick sense of humor, he likes to pop up when he's least expected, scaring the bejeebers out of me.

"He's got to stop doing this — my heart can't take it," I gasped.

Gus snaked off, no doubt sticking out his tongue and smirking as he went.

Maureen gave him the moniker, knowing that it's harder for her husband to become an ax murderer capable of hacking up a pet named Gus. She hopes we will bond.

"See, he's wagging his tail at you," she said observed once when he surprised me in the garden.

Gus, whose coloring is similar to the back of a buzz worm, was doing his Oscar-winning rendition of a coiled rattlesnake, complete with tail shaking and hissing. But I like to think my performance of a startled man whizzing his pants would have also impressed the Academy.

It's not that I have ophidiophobia. I am not afraid of all snakes. In fact, I have picked up nonvenomous snakes to relocate them on our property, knowing they are great for rodent control.

But these are snakes that I know to be harmless. They don't delight in pretending they are rattlesnakes just to scare the daylights out of me.

Gus is not a nice snake.

Try as a I might, I can't help but get the heebie jeebies when I see something that resembles a buzz worm. That rattlers are great mousers I have no doubt. My concern is that a rattlesnake, given its reputedly short-ranged eyesight, couldn't tell the difference between a mouse and its larger cousin, the journalistic rodent.

Yet my fear of rattlesnakes is nothing compared to Maureen's arachnophobia. Her piercing scream at the sight of a spider — any spider — would give a seasoned ax murderer the willies.

Did I mention that a huge but perfectly harmless garden spider just this week took up housekeeping in one of our Early Girl tomato plants? Think Shelob, as in Lord of the Rings.

"Hey, honey, we're finally getting some ripe tomatoes," I told Maureen, who lives for ripe tomatoes. "You ought to see those Early Girls."

God help me, but I was giggling when she headed happily out to the garden, basket in hand.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.