“Oh, bugger!” he muttered to himself.
The woman next to him crashed her coffee cup onto her tray and stood up suddenly.
“Go bugger yourself!” she said crisply, and walked off.
Roger stared after her for a moment.
“No fear,” he said. “I think maybe I already have.”
ENTER A SERPENT
In principle, I had no objection to snakes. They ate rats, which was laudable of them, some were ornamental, and most of them were wise enough to keep out of my way. Live and let live was my basic attitude.
On the other hand, that was theory. In practice, I had any number of objections to the huge snake curled up on the seat of the privy. Beyond the fact that he was gravely discommoding me at present, he wasn’t usefully eating rats and he wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, either, being a sort of drab gray with darker splotches.
My major objection to him, though, was the fact that he was a rattlesnake. I supposed that in a way it was fortunate that he was; it was only the heartstopping buzz of his rattles that had prevented me sitting on him in the dawn’s early light.
The first sound froze me in place, just inside the tiny privy. I extended one foot behind me, groping gingerly for the doorsill. The snake didn’t like that; I froze again as the warning buzz increased in volume. I could see the vibrating tip of his tail, sticking up like a thick yellow finger, rudely pointing from the heap of coils.
My mouth had gone dry as paper; I bit the inside of my cheek, trying to summon a little saliva.
How long was he? I seemed to recall Brianna’s telling me—from her Girl Scout handbook—that rattlesnakes were capable of striking at a distance up to one-third their own body length. No more than two feet separated my nightgown-covered thighs from the nasty flat head with its lidless eyes.
Was he six feet long? It was impossible to tell, but the squirm of coils looked unpleasantly massive, the rounded body thick with scaled muscle. He was a bloody big snake, and the fear of being ignominiously bitten in the crotch if I moved was enough to make me stand still.
I couldn’t stand still forever, though. Other considerations aside, the shock of seeing the snake hadn’t decreased the urgency of my bodily functions in the slightest.
I had some vague notion that snakes were deaf; perhaps I could shout for help. But what if they weren’t? There was that Sherlock Holmes story about the snake who responded to a whistle. Perhaps the snake would find whistling inoffensive, at least. Cautiously, I pursed my lips and blew. Nothing came out but a thin stream of air.
“Claire?” said a puzzled voice behind me. “What the hell are ye doing?”
I jumped at the sound, and so did the snake—or at least it moved suddenly, flexing its coils in what appeared to be imminent attack.
I froze to the doorframe and the snake quit moving, except for the chronic whirr of its rattles, like the annoying buzz of an alarm clock that wouldn’t shut off.
“There’s a f**king snake in here,” I said through my teeth, trying not to move even my lips.
“Well, why are ye standing there? Move aside and I’ll pitch it out.” I could hear Jamie’s footsteps, coming close.
The snake heard him too—obviously it wasn’t deaf—and revved up its rattling.
“Ah,” Jamie said, in a different tone of voice. I heard a rustle as he stooped behind me. “Stand still, Sassenach.”
I hadn’t time to respond to this piece of gratuitous advice before a heavy stone whizzed past my hip and struck the snake amidships. It sprang into something resembling a Gordian knot, squirmed, writhed—and fell into the privy, where it landed with a nasty sort of hollow thwuck!
I didn’t wait to congratulate the victorious warrior, but instead turned and ran for the nearest patch of woods, the dew-wet hem of my nightgown slapping round my ankles.
Returning a few minutes later in a more settled frame of mind, I found Jamie and Young Ian squeezed into the privy together—a tight fit, considering their sizes—the latter squatting on the bench with a pine-knot torch as the former bent over the hole, peering into the depths beneath.
“Can they swim?” Ian was asking, trying to see past Jamie’s head without setting his uncle’s hair on fire.
“I dinna ken,” Jamie replied dubiously. “I think maybe so. What I want to know is, can they jump?”
Ian jerked back, then laughed a little nervously, not altogether sure that Jamie was joking.
“Here, I canna see a thing; hand me the light.” Jamie reached up to take the splinter of pine from Ian, and lowered it gingerly into the hole.
“If the stink doesna put the flame out, belike we’ll burn down the privy,” he muttered, bending low. “Now, then, where the devil—”
“There it is! I see it!” Ian cried.
Both heads jerked, and cracked together with the sound of splitting melons. Jamie dropped the torch, which fell into the hole and was promptly extinguished. A thin wisp of smoke drifted up from the rim of the hole, like incense.
Jamie staggered out of the privy, hands clutching his forehead, eyes squeezed shut with pain. Young Ian leaned against the inside wall, hands pressed tightly over the crown of his head, making abrupt and breathless remarks in Gaelic.
“Is it still alive?” I asked anxiously, peering toward the privy.
Jamie opened one eye and regarded me under the clutching fingers.
“Oh, my head’s fine, thanks,” he said. “I expect my ears will ha’ quit ringing by next week, sometime.”
“Now, now,” I said soothingly. “It would take a sledgehammer to dent your skull. Let me look, though.” I pushed his fingers aside and pulled his head down, feeling gently through the thick hair. There was a small bruised spot just above the hairline, but no blood.
I kissed the spot perfunctorily and patted him on the head.
“You won’t die,” I said. “Not from that, anyway.”
“Oh, good,” he said dryly. “I’d much rather die of snakebite next time I sit down to my business.”
“It’s a poisonous serpent, is it?” Ian asked, letting go of his head and coming out of the privy. He inhaled deeply, filling his thin chest with fresh air.
“Venemous,” Jamie corrected him. “If it bites you and makes ye sick, it’s venemous; if you bite it and it makes ye sick, it’s poisonous.”
“Oh, aye,” Ian said, dismissing this pedantry. “It’s a wicked snake, though?”
“Very wicked,” I said, with a slight shudder. “What are you going to do about it?” I asked, turning to Jamie.
He raised one eyebrow.
“Me? Why ought I to do anything about it?” he asked.
“You can’t just let him stay in there!”
“Why not?” he said, raising the other brow.
Ian scratched his head absently, winced as he encountered the lump left by his collision with Jamie, and stopped.
“Well, I dinna ken, Uncle Jamie,” he said dubiously. “If ye want to let your balls hang over a pit wi’ a deadly viper in it, that’s your concern, but the notion makes my flesh creep a bit. How big’s the thing?”
“Fair-sized, I’ll admit.” Jamie flexed his wrist, showing his forearm by way of comparison.
“Eeugh!” said Ian.
“You don’t know they don’t jump,” I put in helpfully.
“Aye, I do.” Jamie eyed me cynically. “Still, I grant ye, the thought’s enough to make one a bit costive. How d’ye mean to get him out, though?”
“I could shoot him wi’ your pistol,” Ian offered, brightening at the thought of getting his hands on Jamie’s treasured pistols. “We needn’t get him out if we can kill him.”
“Is he…ah…visible?” I put in delicately.
Jamie rubbed his chin dubiously. He hadn’t shaved yet, and the dark red bristles rasped under his thumb.
“Not very. There’s no more than a few inches o’ filth in the pit, but I shouldna think ye could see him well enough to aim, and I hate to waste the shot.”
“We could invite all of the Hansens for dinner, serve beer, and drown him,” I suggested facetiously, naming a nearby—and very numerous—Quaker family.
Ian erupted in giggles. Jamie gave me an austere sort of look, and turned toward the woods.
“I’ll think of something,” he said. “After my breakfast.”
Breakfast was luckily no great problem, as the hens had helpfully provided me with nine eggs and the bread had risen satisfactorily. The butter was still immured in the back of the pantry, under the baleful guard of the newly-farrowed sow, but Ian had managed to lean in and snatch a pot of jam from the shelf as I stood by with the broom, jabbing it into the sow’s gnashing jaws as she made little darting charges at Ian’s legs.
“I’ll have to have a new broom,” I remarked, eyeing the tattered remains as I dished up the eggs. “Perhaps I’ll go up to the willow grove by the stream this morning.”
“Mmphm.” Jamie reached out a hand and patted absently around on the table, searching for the bread plate. His attention was wholly focused on the book he was reading, Bricknell’s Natural History of North Carolina.
“Here it is,” he said. “I knew I’d seen a bit about rattlesnakes.” Locating the bread by feel, he took a piece and used it to scoop a healthy portion of egg into his mouth. Having engulfed this, he read aloud, holding the book in one hand while groping over the tabletop with the other.
“ ‘The Indians frequently pull out the snakes’ Teeth, so that they never afterwards can do any Mischief by biting; this may be easily done, by tying a bit of red Wollen Cloth to the upper end of a long hollow Cane, and so provoking the Rattle-Snake to bite, and suddenly pulling it away from him, by which means the Teeth stick fast in the Cloath, which are plainly to be seen by those present.’ ”
“Have we any red cloth, Auntie?” Ian asked, washing down his own share of the eggs with chicory coffee.
I shook my head, and speared the last of the sausages before Jamie’s groping hand reached it.
“Blue, green, yellow, drab, white, and brown. No red.”
“That’s a fine wee book, Uncle Jamie,” Ian said, with approval. “Does it say more about the snakes?” He looked hungrily over the expanse of table, in search of more food. Without comment, I reached into the hutch and brought out a plate of spoonbread, which I set before him. He sighed happily and waded in, as Jamie turned the page.
“Well, here’s a bit about how the rattlesnakes charm squirrels and rabbits.” Jamie touched his plate, but encountered nothing save bare surface. I pushed the muffins toward him.
“ ‘It is surprizing to observe how these Snakes will allure and charm Squirrels, Hedge-Conneys, Partridges and many other small Beasts and Birds to them, which they quickly devour. The Sympathy is so strong between these, that you shall see the Squirrel or Partridge (as they have espied this Snake) leap or fly from Bough to Bough, until at last they run or leap directly into its Mouth, not having power to avoid their Enemy, who never stirs out of the Posture or Quoil until he obtains his Prey.’ ”