Authors: Catherine Anderson
ach began the ascent. He knew he'd be bitten again when he moved. But nothing could have prepared him for the agony of it. Three feet up, he felt the first impact. The burning sensation snatched his breath, and it took all his concentration to keep a hold on the rope. Two more feet, and another snake struck.
The explosion of pain blocked out all other sensation in his legs. He could no longer tell if his feet were gripping the rope. Judging from the strain on his arms, he doubted it.
One hand over the other, inch by slow inch, he worked his way toward the light. A rattler struck his jacket, and Miranda screamed. "Hold on, honey. Whatever you do, don't turn loose."
Zach thought he felt another snake get him, but couldn't he sure. Somewhere near the surface, a wave of dizziness hit him, and he nearly lost his grip on the rope. He heard Kate's voice, sounding as if it came from a distance. He threw a knee over the rim of the well, folded one arm around Miranda, and grabbed wildly for the grass. Fresh air. No snakes. Daylight.
Miranda's head popped out from under his coat like a turtle's from its shell, but when Kate tried to wrest her away from Zach, she refused to let go of his neck. With hands that no longer felt attached to his arms, he unbuttoned his jacket and searched Miranda's body for bites.
He knew he was a goner. They had nailed him three, maybe four times. He could feel the denim of his jeans stretching taut around his legs and knew his limbs were swelling at an alarming rate. But not the child. Please, God, not the child.
"Snakes." He looked up at Kate and blinked, suddenly so dizzy that he wasn't quite sure which of the three women looking down at him was the real one. "Rattlesnakes, a whole den of 'em. Make sure the sons of bitches didn't bite her."
He imagined he could feel the poison coursing through his blood stream. In his recollection, snakebite symptoms usually came on more slowly, the first hitting after fifteen or twenty minutes, growing worse after that, taking hours before the cumulative effects were fatal.
Not with him. His heart was already chugging like a steam locomotive going up a steep grade, the beats coming so rapidly, one upon the other, that his chest felt as if it might explode. His body was drenched in sweat and tingled, as if pins were jabbing him. Nausea rolled through his stomach.
Feeling weak, he passed a hand over his eyes, wincing at the intensifying ache that throbbed in his temples. He tried to focus his gaze, vaguely aware that Kate had dragged Miranda away and was frantically running her hands over his legs.
"Oh, my God, Mr. McGovern. Oh, my God. You've been badly bitten. I have to get you to the house."
Zach figured he'd just as soon die where he was. Less effort that way. He sank back on an elbow. The sound of Miranda's high-pitched sobbing penetrated the fog around him. He clawed his way through it. "Don't cry, honey,"
he managed to slur. "It's over, and you're safe." He searched for Kate's face. "She is okay, isn't she? They didn't get her."
"No, they didn't." Kate's voice cracked. "Thanks to you. Oh, Mr. McGovern. I've never heard of anyone being bitten so many times. You're bleeding awfully."
He struggled to martial his thoughts. "The poison… It makes the blood thin."
Zach closed his eyes. He seemed to be floating, and he went with it, glad to escape the burning pain. Time passed. He wasn't sure how much, only that Kate Blakely was tugging at him. Her voice clamored inside his head.
You mustn't lie down
. And why the hell not? he wanted to ask. But he couldn't muster the energy.
Mr. McGovern, you have to at least try to walk. Just to the horse. Please, please try
. If it wasn't just like a woman to pester a man when he was trying to rest.
At Kate's prodding, Zach managed to stagger to his feet. At least, he surmised he was on his feet. His legs felt like blazing stumps, and the pain obliterated all other feeling from his waist down. He felt her drape his arm around her shoulders and realized the crazy little fool was trying to carry him.
"Don't… You'll hurt yourself."
"I'll thank you to just keep walking, Mr. McGovern. I'll worry about what will hurt me and what won't."
Was he walking? Zach had a vague impression of the ground passing beneath him and decided he must be. She sure as hell wasn't big enough to carry him. When they reached the horse, his mind cleared enough for him to realize she wanted him to mount up. He draped both arms over Dander's saddle and dropped his head. This was as far as he was going.
"Get your foot in the stirrup."
"You'll be finished when I say, and not before. Lift your foot, dad-blame you."
Zach felt her come up on the other side of the horse and seize hold of his wrists. He struggled to lift his head.
"You can't pull me up."
He felt her pull anyway, and damned if she didn't manage to lift him a couple of inches. Zach groaned and tried to sling his leg over. He failed on the first try, succeeded on the second. When she finally got him into the saddle, he lay forward on the horse, not caring that the saddle horn jabbed him in the belly. Every step the beast took was an agony. Zach gritted his teeth one second and cursed the next.
The trip to the house passed in a dizzying blur of pain. He had vague impressions of the sky, the ground, the barn, and then the rose garden. The next thing he knew she was half carrying him up the steps. He wanted to help, tried to help, but his feet felt as if they were a hundred blazing miles from his brain and weighted with lead.
She couldn't get him much farther, Zach thought. He outweighed her by a good hundred pounds, and his legs grew more useless with every attempted step. But carry him she did. Through a dark foyer. Down a long, dim hallway that spun round and round until he couldn't tell where the floor ended and the ceiling began. Then he felt the soft embrace of a feather bed come up to meet him.
In the farthest reaches of his mind, he wondered if someone had forgotten to tell Kate Blakely that a rattlesnake bite was usually fatal. He had been bitten more than once. He was as good as dead and just too stubborn to quit kicking.
He felt her trying to work his jeans down over his hips. For the life of him, he couldn't push up to help her.
Damned fool woman. She didn't know when to quit any more than he did. When she finally stopped tugging on his britches, Zach strained to lift his head.
"Would you do me one favor?" he managed to ask.
For some reason, everything went clear and unnaturally bright for a second, and Zach could see her pale face.
Her gaze clung to his. "Anything, Mr. McGovern. All you need do is ask."
He worked his mouth for some spit so he could swallow. God, he wanted a drink. "Toss a stick of lit dynamite into that well. If I've gotta go, I want to take those god-damned snakes to hell with me."
"You're not going to hell, or to heaven either, for that matter," she informed him in a determined voice. "You're going to live, Mr. McGovern."
"Rattler bites are fatal," he mumbled.
"These won't be. Not if I have anything to say about it."
* * *
Using her sewing scissors, Kate cut McGovern's jeans and underwear straight up the front crease of each leg and laid them open like the peeling on a banana. She counted four bites, three deep, one superficial. His last words rang in her head.
Rattler bites are fatal
. She thanked God he was unconscious. What she had to do would be excruciatingly painful. Shoving the denim aside, she sheered off his long underwear to the length of a boy's shorts and shoved the knit cotton high on his thighs.
Unable to spare a moment to comfort Miranda who stood sobbing by the bed, Kate dashed to the kitchen, grabbed the butcher knife, and sterilized it as best she could in the cookstove fire. As she exited the kitchen, she grabbed the broom. By the time she returned to the bedroom, Mr. McGovern's lips had begun to turn blue, his tanned face a pasty color. Jerking back the counterpane, she seized hold of the bedsheet and slashed off several strips to serve as tourniquets.
"Get back, Miranda."
Holding the broom at an angle, Kate struck it sharply with the heel of her shoe. The length of wood snapped in two. She repeated the process until she had several pieces broken into manageable lengths. She made fast work of making tourniquets on McGovern's thighs between the puncture wounds and his torso.
She swiped sweat from her brow and glanced up. "Miranda, I want you to go out to the barn, find the big milking bucket, and fill it with dirt for me."
Miranda dragged a frightened gaze from the fang marks on Mr. McGovern's swollen legs. "Is he gonna die, Ma?"
"Not if you hurry and do as I say."
Miranda bolted for the doorway. The instant she was out of sight, Kate went to work on Zachariah McGovern with the knife. When she had made all the necessary incisions, she dropped to her knees and placed her mouth over one of the bites. She didn't know if it was the steely muscle that roped his thigh or the tautness of his swollen flesh, but it was nearly impossible for her to get suction. She worked the skin, took a long draw and then spat.
. She knew she mustn't bruise the tissue surrounding the wound or it would slough off later.
The seconds sped into minutes. In such a hurry that she scarcely paused between suckles to breathe, Kate began to feel lightheaded. She continued working. This man had saved her daughter's life, and she could do no less for him.
When she had sucked the bites as clean as she could get them, she gently worked the surrounding flesh so the wounds would continue to bleed. Then she mixed a thick mud paste with the dirt Miranda had collected, praying she wasn't doing the wrong thing as she globbed the mixture onto McGovern's legs. She recalled hearing that animals bitten by venomous snakes went to mudholes and submerged themselves. Mud had drawing properties.
If it worked for animals, pray God it would work on a man.
Exhausted, Kate rubbed her hands clean and stood beside the bed, trying to think of something else she might do.
There was nothing, save go for the doctor. Just in case McGovern might still be able to hear, she leaned over him and touched his arm.
"I'm going to town for Doc Willowby, Mr. McGovern. I'll be back as soon as I can."
He didn't respond. Kate had never seen anyone so close to death yet still breathing. She half expected every rise of his chest to be the last. She gathered Miranda into her arms and headed outside to find the horse.
"He saved me, Ma," Miranda said with a sob. "He heard the snakes before he was close enough to get hurt, but he comed down and got me anyways. That's how come he's all bit."
"I know, sweetness. He was very brave."
"Will he die?"
Kate nearly lost her balance on the front steps and braced a shoulder against the post to right herself. "No. He isn't going to die, Miranda. I won't let him."
* * *
When the doctor moved away from the bed, he threw an eerie, hunchbacked shadow that danced across the unfinished plank walls of the bedroom. Dreading his prognosis, Kate dragged her gaze from Zachariah McGovern's inert, sheet-draped body.
"Only a miracle will save him."
She was prepared for that. Wasn't she? "Isn't there anything more that I can do?"
"All we can do is pray. So much time passed before you got him here and sucked the poison out that—" Doc Willowby stepped to the ladder-backed chair that Kate had drawn to the bed. Placing a hand on the small of his back, he bent stiffly to close his satchel, then turned back to her. The spectacles perched on his bulbous nose gave him an alert, owlish look. "I'll go back to town and round up some men to help me move him to my clinic.
You've got enough to handle, caring for that child and trying to run this place. He may linger for several hours."
"I can't just give up."
Doc ran a gnarled hand over his thinning gray hair. "Kate, you're a good woman and I'm sure you're a fair nurse, but care won't give him an edge. A man his size could live through one snake bite, maybe two, but not even a horse could survive four."
"As tiny as Miranda is, she wouldn't have survived even one. If he had been less concerned with saving her, he might never have been bitten. I can't give up, not until he does."
The doctor sighed, then nodded. "I guess I'd feel the same. And one thing's for sure, he'll get more attention here than he would in town. Since the wife passed on, I don't have a nurse. I delivered a baby this afternoon and have another woman in labor, which is likely to keep me away from the clinic for several hours. He'd be left to fare on his own." He shrugged. "I have to apply my skills where they'll do the most good."
Kate understood. This could be hard, cruel country. Folks hereabouts were lucky to have a doctor at all. She took a steadying breath. "I'm not blaming you. Tell me what to do."
As briefly as possible, Doc Willowby gave Kate instructions, most of which she knew, to keep McGovern comfortable, to force fluids down him, to keep the wounds packed with poultices. He had never known anyone to try mud on snakebites, but he didn't see how it could hurt unless it brought on infection. "I've heard of an antivenin they've come up with," he finished. "But if it's so, I haven't seen hide nor hair of it." He shrugged again, a habit that Kate guessed he had acquired to express his feeling of helplessness when illness or injury outflanked him. "I probably wouldn't know how to use the doggone stuff, anyway."
"You've done your best, Doc. That's all I or anyone else can ask of you. If Mr. McGovern were conscious, I'm sure he'd agree."
"He may start bleeding from the nose. And maybe from other places. Snakebites can cause that. It won't be pretty." He glanced around. "It'd be wise to keep the child out of here. Where is she, by the way? I ought to check her over."
Kate knew Miranda had come through the fall with scarcely a scratch. Being examined by a strange man would do her more harm than good. "She's a shy one. She must be off hiding somewhere."
"Would you call her, please?"
"I've already checked her over, Doc, and she's fine. You have a baby to deliver, remember?"
At mention of his other patients, the doctor picked up his satchel and moved through the house to the front door.
"You sure she's okay?"
"Positive." Glancing out into the yard, Kate noticed the absence of her wagon out by the barn. If an emergency arose and she had to get her patient to town to see the doctor, she would need the buckboard. "On your way to town, could you stop by McGovern's and ask whoever's there to bring my wagon back?"
"Certainly." As he stepped onto the porch, the doctor said, "I'll be back first thing in the morning to make arrangements. When it's over, just cover him and pull the bedroom door closed."
The words made Kate flinch. She remembered Zachariah McGovern's concern for Miranda's safety after he brought her up from the well, the gentleness in his big, work-roughened hands as he ran them over her small person. She couldn't repay him for that by allowing death to take him. She just couldn't.