Authors: Deeanne Gist
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #ebook, #book
To reach her house, they would need to cross through town. Instead of taking her the shortest—and more public—route, Mr. Bryant kept them on the abandoned streets that edged the city limits. It would double their walking time but would keep curious eyes from speculating about her disheveled appearance and her choice of escort.
“I heard you give shooting lessons to the ladies in town every Thursday morning,” he said, interrupting the quiet. “Is that true?”
“Yes, it is.”
He said nothing for the longest time, their leisurely footfalls muffled by the dirt in the street.
“Why would a bicycle club offer shooting lessons?”
She allowed herself a small smile. “Women are unaccustomed to being without escort or chaperone. I think it wise, therefore, to give my students the skills needed to protect themselves from any threats they may encounter while out bicycling alone.”
“Threats of the four-legged kind or the two-legged?” he asked, a touch of humor in his voice.
“Both, I suppose.”
“Are you telling me, then, that the ladies of Corsicana ride their wheels with six-shooters strapped to their bloomers?”
“No, of course not,” she said with a short huff of amusement.
“Then, why learn how to shoot a gun if you aren’t going to carry one?”
“I never said we weren’t carrying pistols. Just that we don’t strap them to our bloomers.”
He pulled her to a stop, clearly appalled. “Are you packing a pistol right now?”
“I am not.”
He took a moment to absorb her answer. The moonlight behind him silhouetted his head, hiding the nuances of his expression, but it did not disguise his thorough perusal of her. “Where do you put it when you are carrying, then?”
She shook her head. “I shall not discuss such a delicate matter with you, Mr. Bryant.”
“Delicate?” he asked, a hint of astonishment in his voice. “You carry it someplace delicate? Do you think that wise? What if it went off?”
She started toward home again. “I cover safety precautions in my instruction.”
He caught up to her and recaptured her elbow.
“I feel steadier now,” she said. “I can walk without assistance.”
“All the same.” He held her firmly. “Who is allowed to take lessons?”
“Any of my club members.”
“Are all your members female?”
“No, no. I have a vast number of men in my club. But their work keeps them from utilizing as many of the privileges as the women.”
“What other privileges do you offer?”
“Our members can receive private instruction on bicycle riding and repair, etiquette, fashion, health, and a number of other things. We also have weekly lectures, monthly group rides, service projects, and an annual ball and supper. We are going to have a huge group ride on the Fourth of July that is open to the public, regardless of membership status.”
They turned in a westerly direction toward the residential part of town. The clouds hovering earlier in the day had dispersed, leaving a palette of stars too numerous to count.
“You do all that and run Sullivan Oil, too?”
She hesitated, wondering if it was surprise or appreciation she detected in his tone. “Papa makes all the major decisions for the oil company. I have more of an administrative role.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
She glanced up at him. “What have you heard?”
“That you pretty much run the company.”
“That’s not true. Papa is the majority owner and I couldn’t possibly manage it without him.”
A scream rent the air. It came from somewhere deep in the woods, a long, piercing wail that stopped Essie in her tracks, then sent her racing toward the sound, skirts lifted just high enough to clear the ground.
She forgot about her earlier ordeal as a surge of energy shot through her. Whoever was screaming was either terrified or in a great deal of pain—perhaps both.
She’d spent the better part of her childhood cavorting in these woods and knew them backwards and forwards. The lack of light didn’t slow her down, but she could hear Mr. Bryant stumbling through the underbrush behind her.
Harley Vandervoort burst through some trees in front of them. “Miss Essie! Brianna got bit by a snake!”
“Lead us to her,” Mr. Bryant said, catching up to them. Harley wasted no time. He turned and bolted deeper into the forest.
“What kind of snake?” Essie shouted, racing after him.
They found the girl writhing on the ground in a damp clearing lit by a full moon. She grasped her wounded leg and kicked out frantically with the other.
“My foot! My foot!” she screamed.
Several yards away lay a three-foot rattler with a severed head and a bulge in his middle from a recent meal.
TONY KNELT in the damp leaves to lift the girl up. He wasn’t sure exactly how far from town they were, but he’d run the whole way if he had to, with the struggling girl in his arms. He slid his arm under her, but Essie pushed him back.
“Leave her be,” Essie said.
She crouched over the girl’s hurt leg, trying to grab the calf, but the little thing kicked free.
“I can’t. I can’t.” The girl whimpered, tears coursing down her face, her reddish brown braids mussed and filled with leaves and dirt.
“Grab hold of her, Tony, and keep her from thrashing.”
“We’ve got to get her back to town,” he said.
“There’s no time! Hold her!”
He pulled the girl onto his lap and wrapped his arms around her, crushing her to his chest. “Hush, now,” he said. “It’ll be all right.”
Essie reached across to him. “I need a knife.”
“No!” Brianna screamed, twisting frantically and almost breaking free of his hold.
“Keep her still, I said!”
Anchoring the girl against him with one arm, he quickly pulled his knife from his pocket and tried to open the larger blade, but Brianna kept jostling his hold.
“Here,” Essie said. “Let me.” She took the knife from his hand and flipped it open.
Brianna fought with renewed vigor, screaming, squirming, and kicking her feet. A spot of blood stained the girl’s stocking above the ankle.
“Shhhhh,” Tony said, tucking the girl’s head and knees against his chest. “Hold still, honey, and let Miss Essie have a look.”
“I’m just going to cut your shoe off, Brianna,” Essie said, her voice a little calmer now that she had the knife in hand. “But you must hold still so I don’t cut you instead.”
“We were snake hunting,” Harley said, his thin voice choking on the words. “Not fer rattlers, o’ courst, but that’s what we found when we poked under that bush over yonder.”
“Snake hunting?” Tony asked. “With a girl? And at this time of night? What were you thinking?” And what were her parents going to say when they found out, he wondered, though he didn’t say so aloud.
Harley puffed out his chest. “The snake wasn’t expectin’ us to go peeking in its hidey-hole or it would’ve warned us away with its rattle. But we didn’t know it was there ’til Bri lifted that branch. She started screamin’ and carryin’ on and scared the blasted thing so bad that it bit her. I killed it right quick, then ran fer help.”
The boy sounded defensive, and Tony regretted saying anything. He watched Essie slice the buttons off the girl’s shoe and rip open her stocking. Amid the cuts and scratches on the girl’s ankle, he spotted two oozing fang bites.
Essie took one look at the injury and turned to the boy. “Go get a horse, Harley, and bring it to the edge of the woods.”
Harley tore off in the direction of the nearest house. Tony tried to maneuver Brianna so that a beam of moonlight fell across her ankle. He knew what was coming. They’d need all the light they could get.
“It’s burning, it’s burning,” she sobbed.
Tony kissed her head and stroked her hair. “I know, honey. Try to take some deep breaths, if you can.”
She took a shaky breath, then moaned.
Essie tossed up her own hem, ripped the ruffle clean off her petticoat, then split it into two strips. She quickly tied one strip above the bite and one below.
“You need me to tighten those?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’m just trying to slow down the venom, not cut off her blood flow.” She wedged two fingers beneath the cotton bands, making sure the strips weren’t too tight.
He’d seen plenty of snakes in his day but had never actually seen someone who’d suffered from a bite. He had a gleaning knowledge of what had to be done but wouldn’t have trusted himself to do it when he could just as easily have taken her to a doctor.
But Essie had no hesitation in her actions. Picking up his knife, she pantomimed a firm, rigid hug.
Nodding, he gathered Brianna to him and clamped down. “Hold real still now, sweetheart. Essie’s gonna have a look at the bite and I don’t want you to kick her. All right?”
Brianna moaned in answer and stiffened in his arms.
With quick proficiency, Essie made an incision across each wound. Brianna screamed. Tony held her firmly in place.
Tossing the knife down, Essie grabbed the girl’s leg like it was a piece of corn on the cob and began to suck at the wounds, then spit out blood.
The girl cried out in protest, struggling anew, but Tony held her secure, watching in wonder as Essie sucked and spit, sucked and spit.
He knew of grown men who wouldn’t have the stomach to do what she was doing, yet there was no wavering in her task. On and on she went. How long would she continue?
“Stop, stop. Please. It hurts!”
He buried his nose in Brianna’s hair, shushing her, whispering to her, all the while Essie tried to pull the venom from the girl.
“You need a break?” he asked. “You want me to do that for a while?”
She swiped her mouth with her sleeve. “I won’t be able to hold her still. Besides, every minute counts. We’ve only a few left for this to be effective.”
Essie checked the tightness of the bands, then bent to her task again. The girl was trembling all over and sobbing uncontrollably now. Her leg was beginning to swell.
Wasn’t it dangerous for Essie to suck the venom into her mouth like that? What if she swallowed some of it? Could both she and the girl die?
His stomach started to gurgle and he took several deep breaths.
Harley exploded back into the clearing. “I got two of Mr. Peeples’ horses tied to a tree. He said he’d get word to Doc Gulick to meet you at the Penningtons’.”
Essie surged to her feet. “Come on. We need to hurry.”
As Tony ran with the girl in his arms, he could feel all the fight bouncing out of her. When they reached the horses, Essie held out her arms for Brianna. The girl was no longer thrashing but lay limp, sweating profusely and keening in a high, mournful voice.
Tony grabbed the mane of a cinnamon-colored horse and pulled himself onto it. He hadn’t ridden bareback since he was a kid. At least Harley had taken the time to bridle her.
Slipping off his jacket, he wrapped it around Brianna and took her from Essie’s raised arms. Harley made a stirrup with his hands, giving Essie a boost up onto her mare.
Without so much as a word, she straddled the horse like a man and kicked the animal’s sides.
The Penningtons lived in a house on West Jackson Avenue. It had three large rooms, a kitchen, and a center hall leading to a back porch, where Tony and Harley waited for word about Brianna.
A full moon hanging high in a bed of stars threw muted light onto the yard. Nearby crickets performed a syncopated symphony.
“You should see this place in the day,” Harley said, sitting on the top porch step, his back against a post. “Miss Katy loves to work in the garden and she has flowers almost solid from here to the fence out front. Blue ones, purple ones, red ones, pink ones, every color you could name.”
Tony set his chair to rocking. After arriving, he remembered what Essie had said back in the Slap Out about there being no Mrs. Pennington. She’d died and left behind a husband and eight girls. The cooper and his oldest daughter had met them at the door and whisked Brianna into a room off the central hallway. The doctor and Essie followed, but Tony and Harley had been consigned to the back porch. Which was just fine with Tony.
“Which one is Miss Katy?” he asked.
“One of the older ones.”
Tony had seen four of the sisters since arriving. The one that had greeted them at the door and three others running between the kitchen and the room they had taken Brianna into.
“Did Brianna’s father know you’d taken her snake hunting?”
“O’ courst. My pa would whup me good if’n I took her without permission.”
“Aren’t your parents wondering what’s keeping you now?”
“They might be. But I ain’t leavin’ ’til I know Bri’s gonna be all right.”
A distant coyote gave a yapping howl, ending with a shrill, scream-like sound. Harley repositioned himself on the step.
“You do this often?” Tony asked. “Snake hunting, I mean?”
“Yeah, I guess. I caught me a yellow-bellied water snake a few weeks back out by the old watershed. It was a good four feet long and this big around.” He made a circle the size of a silver dollar with his fingers.
Tony whistled in appreciation. “You still have it?”
“Naw. My pa made me let it loose ’cause I snuck up on Lexie Davis and scared her with it.” Harley gave Tony a conspiring grin. “She shore did squeal something fierce, though.”
Tony chuckled. “How do you know which snakes are poisonous and which are friendly?”
“Miss Essie showed me.”
Tony stopped his rocker. “Essie? Our Essie?”
Harley gave him a funny look. “You know any others?”
“Well, at first, she just tol’ me that if it had a flat head instead of a round, pointy one, that it would be poisonous. Then when we would run acrost a copperhead or cottonmouth or something, she’d tell me what it was.”
“Do you and Essie make a habit of running across snakes?”
Harley laughed. “Well, yeah. Wouldn’t be much use in huntin’ snakes if we never ran acrost any.”
“You and Essie hunt snakes?”
“Why, shore. She’s the one what taught me how.”
Tony rubbed a hand across his mouth. He didn’t know why he was surprised. Nothing about that woman should surprise him anymore. “How often do you go hunting with her?”
“Not so much anymore. She’s always busy with her bicycle stuff.”
The screen door opened and Essie stepped outside. Tony and Harley came to their feet.
“She’s going to be fine,” Essie said.
Tony let out his breath and Harley slumped against the porch rail.
“What did the doctor say?” Tony asked.
“That the swelling should go away in another two or three weeks and then she’ll be back to normal.”
“You extracted all the venom, then, when you were, um, treating her?” Tony asked.
“Well, I don’t imagine there was all that much to begin with. It was apparent the snake had eaten recently, which would have used up most of its poison.”
“No, Miss Essie,” Harley said. “You saved her life.” He pitched himself against her skirts and hugged her tightly. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if somethin’ had happened to Bri.”
Essie smoothed her hand over his head. “Well, she’s fine now, so no need to worry yourself. And I’m surprised you’re still here.
Hadn’t you better be getting on home?”
He pulled away from her and swiped his nose with his sleeve. “Can I see Bri?”
“Not tonight, Harley. Maybe tomorrow.”
He glanced at the back door, then slumped his shoulders. “Well, if yer sure she’s gonna be all right?”
“I’m sure. Now go on with you.”
He waved good-bye to Tony, clomped down the steps, then disappeared around the corner and into the night. Essie moved to the porch railing, leaned her hands against it and looked out at the moonlit sky.
Tony wished he had a lantern. Her hair had come completely unbound. It was wild and thick and clear down to her waist. Her blouse was twisted, its sleeve stained with blood. Her torn skirt fell limply about her slim hips.
“You okay?” he asked.
“It’s been a long night,” she said, looking at him over her shoulder. A breeze swept across the porch, stirring her hair and causing her to shiver.
“You left your shawl in the woods,” he said, slipping off his jacket and hooking it on her shoulders. The coat trapped her hair beneath it, cutting all but the top from his view.
She pulled the collar tighter around her neck. “I left your knife behind also,” she said.
Patting his pockets, he realized she was right. “I’ll have Harley fetch them for us tomorrow. I’d do it myself, but I don’t think I could find the spot.”
“I hope your knife doesn’t rust being left out overnight. It was such an unusual one.”
“It’ll be fine. I’m more worried about you.”
She waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal. “I’m just tired, is all.”
“Why don’t you let me walk you home, then. Surely you’ve done all you can.”
Keeping her back to him, she scanned the yard and the shadows beyond it. “Yes. Dr. Gulick is almost finished, and Brianna’s sisters will take good care of her. But you needn’t walk me home. I’m sure you’re just as anxious to get some rest as I am, and morning will come awfully early for you.”
Moonlight gilded her hair, and his jacket hung on her like a burlap sack, shrouding her form. He tried to recall the reasons he’d held contempt for her just a few short hours ago, but could not. Instead, he kept seeing her in his mind’s eye crouched over that little girl, desperately trying to save her life—and succeeding.
Then he pictured her sliding down a banister, playing football, hugging Harley, smiling.
He took a deep breath. He was no stranger to the feelings stirring inside him. But this time they were unwelcome. He had a purpose to fulfill, a mother and a sister to provide for.