Brief warning that some of you may find it necessary to have something cuddly to hug while reading this story. Stuffed animal, spouse, real animal. You may also wish for copious amounts of booze and/or chocolate. Tissues may also be needed.-J
"Remember Hickok, there's always one more waiting."
Buck's words had been about so much more than the other rattlesnake that he hadn't seen that day. Jimmy often wondered when it was that the truth of them and what Buck was really talking about had hit home for him. Perhaps it wasn't too long after that day when Jimmy had thought he had been really clever shooting the one snake. Perhaps it was when he had to face down Longley and found out it wasn't just Longley he had to beware of. Perhaps it was when Marcus wrote that stupid book and that boy had come up ready to fight him right after he had dealt with Gabe Calder. Calder faced him with an ounce of fairness but then the other was right there waiting for him. It didn't really matter when he came to fully understand the warning given, it had served him well. He had actually lost count of the number of times that he had been outnumbered and come out alright. Jimmy grimaced now at the thought that what would do him in was a much more literal meaning to those words.
Jimmy'd heard the first one and taken care of it efficiently enough. He'd stopped for the night and was gathering some wood to make a fire. Once the snake was dead he reholstered his gun and bent to pick up another piece of wood. Reaching down he felt the sharp sting. His first instinct was to try to shake the creature loose from him but that proved fruitless as the snake only held tighter. Eventually the snake released its hold on him and was promptly shot as it tried to slither away.
Jimmy looked at his hand, or really the wrist, and could already see the discoloration and swelling around two distinct fang marks. He panicked for a moment or two figuring he had seconds or maybe minutes to live but when nothing immediate happened he calmed some and started thinking.
Taking a few deep breaths to steady his nerves, Jimmy walked over to Sundance so that he could fish his knife out of his saddlebag. The task was made harder by the fact that he was unable to use his dominant hand. Aside from the fact that the swelling was limiting his movement, he was afraid to move it too much for fear he would only push the venom further into his bloodstream. While he could shoot nearly as well with his left hand has his right—as the snake that had bitten him had unfortunately found out—he was decisively right-handed.
Getting the knife was only half the battle but at least he was able to accomplish that relatively quickly. He didn't know how much time he had really but guessed that it was a waning resource. The next thing he had to do would be much harder.
He settled himself down with his back to a substantial tree trunk and thought about finding something to bite down on. He decided that he didn't have time for that and if he did scream there was probably no one to hear it anyway. On the odd chance that someone did hear, they would either come and help or put him out of his misery. Either way, he wasn't all that concerned with being heard right then. He took the best grip on the knife he could with a hand not used to holding a knife and pressed the point of the blade into his flesh. He cared little for precision. As he pressed and felt the skin part, he did cry out. It was not a manly sound, nor was it womanly. It might have been best described it as beastly.
Jimmy hadn't been able to watch himself cut into his own flesh but now he allowed it and saw that he had made a sufficient cut. It was possibly even longer than it needed to be. He placed his mouth over the wound and began to suck; turning his head to spit the blood and what he hoped was enough poison to save his life. He wasn't sure how long he was supposed to keep that up but he repeated the process of sucking the wound and spitting at least five times. He noticed around the wound his flesh was turning black and already had a smell he associated with rotting meat. That couldn't be good. Even though it was near to full dark, Jimmy knew his best chances of survival or at least to have his dead body found before it was picked clean by scavenging animals was to get on Sundance and ride for home. He wasn't due back until the next afternoon so no one would be looking for him but if he could ride through the night, even if it was slow, he might just be able to get there before the poison killed him. Of course he had no real way of knowing that. He was no doctor and had no idea how snake venom worked or how fast it could run through his body.
His head was beginning to spin and he forced himself to take deep breaths. He wasn't sure if the lightheadedness was from fear or the venom. Deliberately he grasped the saddle horn with his left hand, holding his right arm as tight to his body as he could. His head swam and Sundance shifted when he tried to put his foot in the stirrup.
"Come on," Jimmy pleaded with the horse, "Just hold still. I know I'm shaky that's why I need you to not move."
The horse flicked his ears back and forth and then lowered his head slightly as if in understanding and this time when Jimmy put his foot in the stirrup, nothing moved. He took a moment there with one leg up and his hand grasping the saddle. He gritted his teeth and pulled himself up and managed to sling his leg over. Once he was situated in the saddle, he took the reins in his left hand. Sundance lifted his head as if awaiting instruction.
"Give me a minute," Jimmy told him, "Once things stop spinning I can figure out where the damned trail is."
He dared a look at the wound and saw it was turning blacker and the swelling was spreading. He could see all of his fingers now looked like over-stuffed sausages and the swelling extended up his arm near to his elbow. And he didn't want to think about the pain. If he had a knife like Buck's and the ability to use his left hand better, he would have considered cutting the limb off right there just to stop the pain.
One more deep breath and the world came back into a kind of focus for him and he was able to direct the horse back to the trail.
"Alright," he said once they were ambling along toward home, "Just keep walking. You know this trail as well as I do. Take us home."
It was nearly impossible a feat but Jimmy tried not to think about the pain or the fear or the regrets he had in his young life. He tried. He didn't succeed. He was scared. He should get there tomorrow sometime. He hoped perhaps at the time he was expected. Riding through the night would help but Sundance was only walking. He knew the horse was already tired and he wasn't in good enough shape to hold onto anything moving faster than a walk either. He wasn't even sure how long he could keep a hold at this slow speed. Occasionally things would seem to swirl around him and his vision would darken but if he screwed his eyes shut a moment and took a breath or two he could set things to right again. The breathing part was getting harder as well.
Jimmy could see the world around him getting lighter in the pinkish cast of a sunrise. He looked around and knew he was still far from home but then he had suspected that would be the case. Still he had hoped to be surprised. That was hoping for something akin to a miracle though, and he didn't figure God was going to be in any kind of hurry to go handing those out to the likes of him.
In the light of the new day Jimmy took the time to look at his arm and see the whole of it was straining at the fabric of his sleeve. The flesh of his hand had split from the amount of swelling and the rotten smell was greater. There was little pain there though and he was certain the flesh there was dead and no longer able to feel pain. His shoulder was starting to feel tight and he knew the swelling had moved there as well. His vision was growing even more suspect as he rode. Every now and then he would jerk his head up earning him a curious look from Sundance. He never had warning that he might pass out, things just went dark.
He was sweating even though the day was new and still chilly and his jacket was back with the two dead snakes. His head hurt and swam as if he'd been drinking the night away and his chest was starting to tighten as well. His heart felt as though every beat was a struggle and he knew his lungs weren't faring much better. He tried to will his left hand to hang onto the reins and eventually he just wound them around his wrist as well as around the saddle horn. He might have known that was stupid on some level but he trusted Sundance to not spook and drag him if he fell off and hoped it would maybe help him stay in the saddle. He rode on.
Jimmy's arm throbbed. Looking at the sky he guessed it was late in the morning, maybe ten or so. His head was throbbing too. If he was going to feel like he had the worst hangover of his life while he died he wished he at least would have had the fun of getting drunk and earning it. His mouth was dry and felt like the insides had been replaced with cotton. Jimmy couldn't figure out how he would open the canteen with one hand while maintaining his tenuous perch in the saddle so he decided to add that to the things he tried not to think about.
Of course the more he tried not to think about things, the more he thought about them. He tried not to think about the prospect of dying out here alone. He tried not to think of how long it might be before his friends got to worrying. He was due early afternoon, really only a few hours from then but how long it would be before they began to worry and might come look for him, he didn't really want to consider. He tried not to think about his sisters and how he had failed them and how he'd never see them again and never get to say goodbye to them. He tried not to think about the lives he had taken or the other things he had done. He tried not to think about Marcus and how he just had to show off. Jimmy did not want to think about these things so of course he thought of nothing else.
He thought about so many things. He thought about Emma and how hard she had tried with him. She saw something in each of them worth loving, even if they didn't see it themselves. He thought about Teaspoon and how that man had done more fathering to him in the short time he had known him than his own Pa had in the years before his death. He wished he could see them all just one more time but he was becoming less and less certain of that happening as he moved along with the sun toward home.
It was later in the afternoon and he knew he was getting closer to home. Maybe a mile or so more and he would be able to see the windmill. They would be watching for him, for Sundance. They would see him as soon as he came over the horizon. He could hear in his head the call of 'rider coming' and how sweet those words would be. Someone would come to him. They would take care of him. He might even live. But oh, how heavy his head felt. He was so close to home now that certainly it couldn't hurt a thing to rest his head on Sundance's neck for just a while. He did and the darkness closed around him. He didn't even feel himself begin to fall and fall he did. Sundance stopped when he felt his rider begin to slip and allowed the man to slide down. Jimmy half woke up when he felt his leg come in contact with the ground. He disentangled his wrist from the reins and slid the rest of the way to the dirt below. He was so close to home but suddenly Sundance seemed ten foot high at least. He just had to rest a bit, just a little bit. Jimmy closed his eyes and laid his head back on the hard ground and allowed the darkness to claim him once again.
When he woke it was almost dark. Sundance was standing right where he had been when Jimmy had fallen and looked at him as if waiting to be mounted once again. Jimmy wanted to. He really did but then he couldn't seem to stand, or even sit up for any length of time. He tried to stay still and remind himself that he had been due hours ago and they would surely have gone out to look for him but the more he waited, the more he began to despair. Breathing hurt. His heart hurt as it worked to keep beating. His head hurt. He could not move his head because the swelling had moved into his neck. If there had been anything in his stomach he would have lost it from the smell of his own flesh rotting. He wasn't sure how long he had been waiting since he had awakened. If he still had his faculties about him he might have noticed that the sun had yet to dip below the horizon and that it couldn't have been that long at all. But he was suffering and frightened and every second seemed an eternity. He knew he was dying. He also knew that as bad off as he was, even if they found him right then, by the time they got him to a doctor, there wouldn't be much hope for him. His arm was gone, or as good as, and the rest of him wasn't any better off, really. He pulled one of his guns from the holster and he didn't remember it being so blasted heavy. It took all his strength but he managed to draw the hammer back and take aim.
Rachel was just getting supper on the table but no one seemed all that interested. In truth, neither was she. Jimmy had been due back early afternoon from a run that should have had no troubles. By this time of the evening, he should have been home enough time to get cleaned up, catch a nap, hassle Cody and maybe even get in a game of checkers. But he was not there and there had been no sign of him either.
"It just don't feel right, Teaspoon," Kid blurted out jumping up and heading for the door.
"I'm going with you," Lou said hurrying after him.
"Now hold up the both of you," Teaspoon said rising from his chair, "You have no idea what you're riding into. If it stopped Hickok from getting home then you can't just go riding off blind."
"You aren't expecting us to sit here and wait 'til morning to go looking for him?" Lou asked incredulous.
"I ain't suggesting any such thing," the older man replied, "I just think you need some experience by your side. I'm coming too."
Naturally the whole bunkhouse erupted with echoes of the sentiment and demands to go along.
"Calm down," Teaspoon said looking at his boys, "I know you're all worried but we can't all go riding out looking for one man. He might not even be in trouble. Or the trouble might be headed this way and you would leave Rachel here undefended?"
Teaspoon walked out of the bunkhouse to find Lou and Kid had already saddled his horse for him as well as theirs.
They rode off into the darkness and the direction from which Jimmy should have been coming. All three were quiet as they rode and searching the trail in the half moon's light for any sign of Jimmy. They had only just lost sight of the station when they heard a gunshot up ahead and all three kicked their horses to a run in the direction of the noise.
Lou was the first to spot the horse standing on the trail, head down as if in sadness or maybe even shame. There was no mistaking the palomino. It was Sundance. She jumped down from the saddle and ran to the horse.
"Hey there boy," she cooed at the beast, "Where's-"
She could say no more. Her eyes landed on the body of her dear friend, her brother, her confidant. She couldn't even move, so stunned was she by the sight of him. His right arm was swollen and discolored where she could see it through the holes it had torn in his shirt sleeve. His neck was misshapen as well. In his left hand was one of his Colts and she could clearly see the path the bullet had taken through his head.
Teaspoon dared to approach.
"Merciful God," he muttered under his breath as he knelt by the body of his boy. He had uttered that more times than he could count but this time he really felt like he was praying. He wanted to pray for what he knew could not be. He wanted to pray the boy was alive. He wanted to pray that he was imagining things but he knew he was not. He had seen damage like this before.
"Rattler got him," he said, "Weren't much else he could've done but what he did. Poison moved too far for any helping him."
He knew his words to be true but choked on them all the same. Teaspoon pushed Jimmy's hair from his face revealing the youth that was there when he wasn't trying to mask it with that scowl. Emma was right, these boys were just that: boys. They were nothing but children really. The old man sighed and grunted as he stood again and directed the other two to help him load Jimmy onto Sundance's back so they could head back home.
This is my husband's fault and he has no idea how mad I am at him right now. He just has to watch those stupid shows about Venom ER and crap like that where the people get bit by venomous snakes and are rushed to the hosptital for vial after vial of anti-venom...grrrr!
I knew this story would kill me from the moment the venomous little rabid bunny pounced but I also knew I was powerless. I really wanted it to end differently but around those parts he was likely to have met up with a Hopi rattlesnake and those are really potent...he might even be some medical miracle for living as long as he did. I have spent days researching hemotoxic venom and its effects on the human body...so much fun...I am currently sitting with a glass of whiskey sobbing my eyes out from this. For my other Jimmy-loving friends out there, I am so sorry. It was the husband who made the bunny attack me.
I will have to find a way to make this up to Jimmy in a future story...great...he's begging for pie (for some of you, that was funny). Again, I am sorry.-J