They say that in West Texas everything bites, scratches, stings or all three which seems to be true for most of the crawly things one finds in that part of the country. There is a wide variety of critters ranging from stick bugs to ants, spiders, tarantulas and scorpions but the biggest, meanest of them all are the centipede and the vinegaroon. Any or all of them can be found in holes in the ground, under boards or in your boots when you go to put them on in the morning.
The centipede got its name from the number of legs. They are jointed with a pair of legs for each joint but none have ever been known to actually have fifty pairs of legs. When they hatch, they have four joints and eight legs but each time they molt and shed their outside shell, they grow another section with two more legs. They are known to grow to over a foot in length with up to twenty segments with twice that many legs. They are well equipped for both attack and defense with stingers on their two front legs, a pair of venomous fangs and a mouth with sharp plates instead of teeth that can nip off chunks of flesh. They are also the fastest of all critters in the desert over a short distance and can catch mice, small birds, bats and snakes. Their venom quickly paralyses their victim but there are no records of a human dying from their bite which is extremely painful.
But when it comes to a downright mean bug, one would be hard put to find anything nastier than the vinegaroon. It comes equipped with an arsenal of weapons with which to inflict pain. It has the stinging legs, venomous fangs and razor sharp mouth fully equal to the centipede but also a pair of crab-like claws with which to grab and hold its prey plus its whip-like tail exudes a secretion that will numb your fingers if you pick one up by its long tail. Finally, it spits an acid with a strong odor of vinegar in the eyes of its enemy, giving it the strange name. A full grown vinegaroon will reach six to eight inches in length with a body the size of your thumb. It had such a vicious reputation that its name was given to especially mean horses and gunfighters.
I had gone to Marfa, Texas to tow gliders in the World Soaring Championship and one evening, several of us were sitting in one of the old military hangars that still stood like ghosts on the abandoned airbase when we noticed something coming along the wall. Some thought it was a mouse or rat but I recognized it as a large vinegaroon. None of the foreign pilots had ever seen such a critter and had no idea what it was. Some compared it with a lobster due to the large crab-like claws. It was moving methodically along the wall, checking cracks and crevices for insects or anything else it could find to eat. Then we spotted a centipede at least a foot long making its way along the wall from the opposite direction. It was also searching for dinner.
We watched as the two prehistoric insects proceeded for a head-on meeting. They didn't spot one another until they were perhaps a foot apart when they suddenly stopped and raised themselves as high as the could and faced one another. They were obviously wary of one another but neither seems afraid enough to attempt an escape. They sort of wavered back and forth as if sizing one another up, then both lunged at the same time and were locked in a rolling battle on the concrete floor. The acrid smell of vinegar floated in the air. Several of the centipede's legs and a couple long black ones from the vinegaroon fell from the tumbling, writhing mass. Then the centipede's head with the two long curled feelers tumbled to the floor and its jointed body went limp. The vinegaroon had won and to it went the spoils of the battle, a big dinner.
The vinegaroon lay there by his kill for several minutes, as if resting from the ordeal before it began to clip off the centipede's legs one at a time and eat them. When he was finished with the legs, he began devouring the body, one joint at a time until it was half gone. After he had eaten his fill, he dragged the remaining half to a crack in the concrete floor where he hid it for a future meal. The last we saw of the vinegaroon was as he limped away with two missing legs which would grow back in time. He left the head laying on the hangar floor as a trophy of this victory.
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