Jacob pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket that read,
Please take good care of Henry.
My mother wouldn’t let me take him with me.
That morning Jacob had found the note taped to the bare wall of his room when his family arrived at their new home. While the furniture was being carried in, Jacob looked everywhere in the house, in the yard, and even out around the cholla and prickly pear cacti growing outside the fence beyond the mesquite trees. But he didn’t see a sign of any pet.
After supper Jacob got two bowls and put leftovers and bones in one and some fresh cold water in the other and set them outside the back door.
“Henry! Henry!” he called in every direction into the cooling desert air, but there was no answer and no pet came running to eat. He watched until the sunset had faded and bright stars twinkled through the purple and gray of the night, but no pet came.
“I guess Henry is lost,” he told his mother, “or maybe he ran away.”
That night Jacob woke up to the sound of a coyote calling from the mesa out in the distance. He sat up to see if he could see it from his window. But all he could see was the moonlight reflection, glimmering off the desert sand. Then Jacob thought he caught a glimpse of something moving in the corner of his room.
“Henry?” he called and crawled to the foot of his bed to see what it was.
Jacob’s eyes grew larger and larger. He rubbed them hard and then looked again. There in the corner was a snake. He could see its yellow markings in the moonlight against its black body. It was just swallowing the last of a small mouse and was too busy to notice Jacob.
Jacob watched as the end of the mouse’s tail disappeared inside the snake’s mouth, then he saw the bulgy, black and yellow snake crawl slowly into a knothole in the baseboard.
The next morning what Jacob had seen seemed like only a dream, and he forgot about it in all the excitement of his first day at school.
After school one of the boys in his class introduced himself. “My name’s Tom. You moved into the house out near Chacho Mesa, didn’t you? I went past there yesterday with my father and saw you. We live about half a mile farther on.”
“Did you know a boy named Benne who used to live there?” Jacob asked.
“I’m afraid that his pet, Henry, is lost. There was a note asking me to take care of him, but I can’t find him.”
“Oh, haven’t you met Henry yet?” Tom asked with mock innocence. “He’s probably hiding till he gets used to your family. I’ll bet he’s around there somewhere,” Tom added, suppressing a smile. “My father’s planning to stop and get acquainted with your family tonight. I’ll come with him and help you hunt for Henry then.”
Tom and his father arrived right after supper, carrying a plate heaped with chocolate chip cookies. After Jacob and Tom each ate one, they took two more and headed outside.
“Henry’s really hard to find when he wants to be,” Tom said. “There’s an old pack rat’s nest out here that Henry sometimes checks out to see if it’s occupied. Let’s start looking there.”
Tom wove his way in and out of cedar clumps, barrel cacti, and grasses that grew in thin tufts. Here and there he had to step over lechuguilla spines. “Watch out for those!” he warned Jacob. “They’ll slice into even the toughest shoes.”
Soon they reached a large mound of dirt piled around the base of a creosote bush. Bits of foil and shotgun casings and colorful pieces of plastic and metal were poking out here and there from the dirt. Up and down the sides of the mound ran four-toed tracks and long grooves made by something being dragged up its sides.
“It looks like a new pack rat has taken over this place,” Tom said. “If Henry had been here lately, it would have been empty. Let’s go.”
From behind a yucca, a roadrunner darted, then strutted off ahead of the boys, stopping now and again to raise and lower its tail.
“Is Henry a dog?” Jacob finally asked.
“No,” answered Tom briskly.
“If Henry’s not a dog, then he must be a cat?” persisted Jacob.
Tom laughed. “Benne really didn’t tell you in the note who Henry is, did he?” he said incredulously.
“No, who is he?”
“Henry’s a pet snake.”
“A snake!” Then Jacob remembered. “What kind of snake? What does he look like?”
“He’s a king snake. He’s black with yellow markings that look sort of like a chain on his body. He can catch a rat or mouse better than a cat. I already have a pet snake, or I would have taken him home with me when Benne moved away.”
Then Jacob told Tom what had happened the night before. It didn’t seem at all like a dream now.
“That sounds like Henry all right. If he comes out before I go home, I’ll introduce him to you and let him know you’re his new friend. He trusts me already.”
The boys went into Jacob’s room and looked into the knothole.
“I can’t see him in there, but he’s probably awake by now,” Tom said. “He usually sleeps all day and comes out to eat about this time.”
The boys played two games of checkers before a black and yellow head with two bright eyes poked out of the knothole, and the snake crawled into the room.
“There you are, Henry,” Tom said and he picked up the snake. “Meet Jacob. He just moved in here.”
Tom placed the snake in Jacob’s hands. Henry looked at Jacob with unblinking eyes.
“Look,” Jacob said as he walked into the living room to show his mom and dad. “We’ve found Henry.”
“So this is what you were telling us about,” Jacob’s dad said to Tom’s father.
“A pet snake!” Jacob’s mother exclaimed. “That will take a little getting used to. But if he’s as friendly and as good at keeping the mice away as you say, I guess he can stay.”
Henry looked around at Tom and Jacob and their parents, flicked out his tongue, and laid his head down on the coil his body had made in Jacob’s hands and went to sleep.