There was no time to stop and reload; they must keep the herd in sight. A bend of the stream glinted between the trees, below and to the right. Roger charged down the slope in a rush of excitement, canteen and bullet-box flying, heart thundering like the hooves of the buffalo herd. He could hear Jamie bellowing behind him, shouting Gaelic exhortations.
An exclamation in a different tone made Roger glance back. Jamie had stopped, his face frozen in shock. Before Roger could call to him, shock shifted to a look of fury. Teeth bared, he seized his gun by the barrel, and brought down the stock with a vicious tchunk! Barely pausing, he lifted the gun and clubbed it down again—and again, shoulders rolling with the effort.
Reluctantly abandoning the chase, Roger turned and bounded up the slope toward him.
“What the hell—?” Then he saw, and felt the hair on his body rise in a surge of revulsion. Brown coils squirmed between the tussocks, thick and scaly. One end of the snake had been battered to pulp, and its blood stained the butt of Fraser’s musket, but the body writhed on, wormlike and headless.
“Stop! It’s dead. D’ye hear me? Stop, I say!” He grasped Fraser’s arm, but his father-in-law jerked free of his hold and brought the gun-butt down once more. Then he did stop, and stood shuddering violently, half-leaning on his gun.
“Christ! What happened? Did it get you?”
“Aye, in the leg. I stepped on it.” Jamie’s face was white to the lips. He looked at the still-writhing corpse and a deep shudder ran through him again.
Roger repressed his own shudder and grabbed Fraser’s arm.
“Come away. Sit down, we’ll have a look.”
Jamie came, half-stumbling, and collapsed onto a fallen log. He fumbled at his stocking top, fingers shaking. Roger pushed Jamie’s hand away and stripped buskin and stocking off the right foot. The fang marks were clear, a double dark-red puncture in the flesh of Fraser’s calf. The flesh around the small holes had a bluish tinge, visible even in the late gold light.
“It’s poisonous. I’ve got to cut it.” Roger felt dry-mouthed, but oddly calm, with no sense of panic. He pulled the knife from his belt, thought briefly of sterilization, and dismissed the notion. It would take precious minutes to light a fire, and there was no time at all to waste.
“Wait.” Fraser was still white, but had stopped shaking. He took the small flask from his belt and trickled whisky over the blade, then poured a few drops on his fingers and rubbed the liquid over the wound. He gave Roger a brief twitch of the mouth, meant as a smile.
“Claire does that, when she sets herself to cut someone.” He leaned back, hands braced on the mossy trunk, and nodded. “Go on, then.”
Biting his lip in concentration, Roger pressed the tip of the knife into the skin just above one of the puncture marks. The skin was surprisingly tough and springy; the knife dented it, but didn’t penetrate. Fraser reached down and clasped his hand around Roger’s; he shoved, with a deep, vicious grunt, and the knife sank suddenly in, an inch or more. Blood welled up around the blade; the gripping hand fell away.
“Again. Hard—and quick, man, for God’s sake.” Jamie’s voice was steady, but Roger felt clear droplets of sweat fall onto his hand from Fraser’s face, warm and then cold on his skin.
He braced himself to the necessary force, stabbed hard and cut quick—two X marks over the punctures, just as the first-aid guides said. The wounds were bleeding a lot, blood pouring down in thick streams. That was good, though, he thought. He had to go deep; deep enough to get beyond the poison. He dropped the knife and bent, mouth to the wounds.
There was no panic, but his sense of urgency was rising. How fast did venom spread? He had no more than minutes, maybe less. Roger sucked as hard as he could, blood filling his mouth with the taste of hot metal. He sucked and spat in quiet frenzy, blood spattering on the yellow leaves, Fraser’s leg hairs scratchy against his lips. With the peculiar diffusion of mind that attends emergency, he thought of a dozen fleeting things at once, even as he bent his whole concentration to the task at hand.
Was the bloody snake really dead?
How poisonous was it?
Had the bison got away?
Christ, was he doing this right?
Brianna would kill him if he let her father die. So would Claire.
He had the devil of a cramp in his right thigh.
Where in hell were the others? Fraser should call for them—no, he was calling, was bellowing somewhere outside Roger’s ken. The flesh of the leg Roger held had gone rock-hard, muscles rigid under his pressing fingers.
Something grasped the hair on the back of his head and twisted, forcing him to stop. He glanced up, breathing hard.
“That’s enough, aye?” Jamie said mildly. “You’ll drain me dry.” He gingerly wiggled his bared foot, grimacing at his leg. The slashmarks were vivid, still oozing blood, and the flesh around them was swollen from the sucking, blotched and bruised.
Roger sat back on his heels, gulping air.
“I’ve made more—of a mess—than the snake did.”
His mouth filled with saliva; he coughed and spat. Fraser silently offered him the whisky flask; he swirled a mouthful round and spat once more, then drank deep.
“All right?” He wiped his chin with the back of a hand, still tasting iron, and nodded at the lacerated leg.
“I’ll do.” Jamie was still pale, but one corner of his mouth turned up. “Go and see are the others in sight.”
They weren’t; the view from the top of the outcrop showed nothing but a sea of bare branches, tossing to and fro. The wind had come up. If the bison still moved along the river, there was no trace visible, either of them or of their hunters.
Hoarse from hallooing into the wind, Roger made his way back down the slope. Jamie had moved a little, finding a sheltered spot among rocks at the foot of a big balsam fir. He was sitting, back against a rock and legs outstretched, a handkerchief bound round his wounded leg.
“No sign of anyone. Can ye walk?” Roger bent over his father-in-law, and was alarmed to see him flushed and sweating heavily, despite the gathering chill of the air.
Jamie shook his head and gestured toward his leg.
“I can—but not for long.” The leg was noticeably swollen near the bite, and the blue tinge had spread; it showed like a faint fresh bruise on either side of the encircling handkerchief.
Roger felt the first stab of uneasiness. He had done everything he knew to do; first-aid guides always had as the next step in the treatment of snakebite, “Immobilize limb and get patient to hospital as soon as possible.” The cutting and sucking were meant to pull poison from the wound—but clearly there was plenty still left, spreading slowly through Jamie Fraser’s body. He hadn’t been in time to get it all—if he’d gotten any. And the nearest thing to a hospital—Claire and her herbs—a day’s walk away.
Roger sank slowly down onto his haunches, wondering what the hell to do next. Immobilize the limb—well, that was effectively taken care of, for what good it might do.
“Hurt much?” he asked awkwardly.
With this unhelpful response, Jamie leaned back against the rock and closed his eyes. Roger eased himself down onto a sheaf of dry needles, trying to think.
It was getting dark fast; the brief warmth of the day had faded, and the shadows under the trees had taken on the deep blue look of evening, though it couldn’t be more than four or so. Plainly they weren’t going anywhere tonight; navigation in the mountains was nearly impossible in the dark, even if Fraser could walk. If the others were here, they could make a shift to carry him—but would that be any better than leaving him where he was? While he urgently wished Claire were here, sense told him there was little even she could do—except, perhaps, comfort Jamie if he were to die . . .
The thought knotted his belly. Shoving it firmly aside, he reached into his pouch, checking supplies. He had a small quantity of johnny-cake still in his bag; water was never a difficulty in these mountains—through the sound of the trees, he could hear the gurgle of a stream somewhere below, not far off. He’d better be gathering wood while it was still light, though.
“We’d best make a fire.” Jamie spoke suddenly, startling Roger with this echo of his thought. Jamie opened his eyes and looked down at one hand, turning it over and back as though he’d never seen it before.
“I’ve pins and needles in my fingers,” he remarked with interest. He touched his face with one hand. “Here, too. My lips have gone numb. Is that usual, d’ye ken?”
“I don’t know. I suppose it is, if you’ve been drinking the whisky.” It was a feeble joke, but he was relieved to have it greeted with a faint laugh.
“Nay.” Jamie touched the flask beside him. “I thought I might need it more, later.”
Roger took a deep breath and stood up.
“Right. Stay there; you shouldn’t move. I’ll fetch along some wood. The others will likely see the light of the fire.” The other men would be of no particular help, at least not until morning—but it would be a comfort not to be alone.
“Fetch the snake, too,” Jamie called after him. “Fair’s fair; we’ll hae a bite of him for our supper!”
Grinning in spite of present worry, Roger gave a reassuring wave and turned down the slope.
What were the chances? he asked himself, stooping to wrest a thick pine knot from the soft wood of a rotted log. Fraser was a big man, and in robust health. Surely he would survive.
Yet folk did die of snakebite, and not infrequently; he’d heard only last week of a German woman near High Point; bent to pick up a stick of wood from her woodpile, struck full in the throat by a snake lying hidden there, dead in minutes. Reaching under a bush for a dry branch just as this recollection came to him, he hastily withdrew his bare hand, gooseflesh running up his arm. Berating himself for stupidity, he got a stick and thoroughly stirred the drift of dry leaves before reaching once more cautiously into it.
He couldn’t help glancing up the slope every few minutes, feeling a small stab of alarm whenever Fraser was out of sight. What if he should collapse before Roger returned?
Then he relaxed a little as he remembered. No, it was all right. Jamie wasn’t going to die tonight, either of snakebite or cold. He couldn’t; he was meant to die some years hence, by fire. For once, future doom meant present reassurance. He took a deep breath and let it out in relief, then steeled himself to approach the snake.
It was motionless now, quite obviously dead. Still, it took some effort of will to pick the thing up. It was as thick around as his wrist and nearly four feet long. It had begun to stiffen; in the end, he was obliged to lay it across the armload of firewood, like a scaly branch. Seeing it so, he had no trouble imagining how the snake that had bitten the German woman had escaped notice; the subtle browns and grays of its patterns made it nearly invisible against its background.
Jamie skinned the thing while Roger built the fire. Watching from the corner of his eye, he could see that his father-in-law was making an unusually clumsy job of it; the numbness in his hands must be getting worse. Still, he went on doggedly, hacking at the corpse, stringing chunks of pale raw flesh onto a half-peeled twig with trembling fingers.