Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2018
All rights reserved
Kevin asked, “Are you sure this will work?”
He forced a smile as he grabbed the rope and lowered himself in. “Yep. Got it all planned out.”
Jackson held the smile until he couldn’t see Kevin’s face anymore and then he let it go, his skin crawling anew. He hated snakes, and hated small spaces, and here he was facing both, all because he’d gone and got curious.
“Not smart, Jackson,” he muttered to himself, lowering himself hand over hand. “Not smart at all.”
He made it past the point where he’d assumed the ledge was without a single warning rattle going off. Maybe it had been an echo after all.
“You still sitting pretty down there, Mimi?” he called softly.
Her “You came back” was a breathy expulsion of air.
“Told you I would.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I always keep my word.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“Good.” He lowered himself a few feet more. “Let me know when I’m just above your head.”
A minute later, he felt a tap on his boot. “Stop.”
“I want you to light another sulfur for me, honey.” She did. Putting his weight in the loop he’d set in the rope, he ordered, “Now hold it up high.”
The faint light revealed two big rattlers too close for comfort and the others a few feet away.
“Is that high enough?”
He drew his revolver from its holster. “That’s just perfect.”
He pulled back the hammer. “For the next couple seconds, I’d suggest not moving.”
Her eyes grew huge. “What are you doing?”
He took aim at the snake on the other side of her. “I’m going to take out a few of these creatures. It’s going to be loud. Real loud.”
“You could shoot me instead!”
That brought a chuckle. “I’ve missed a time or two in my life, but I don’t feel like today’s going to be one of those times.”
“Oh, my heavens!”
“Pray all you want, but whatever you do, don’t drop that sulfur and don’t you jump.”
He fired. She screamed. The rattler’s head exploded. Mimi screamed again. A second snake struck. He blew its head off right before it bit. Its tail whipped in a death spasm, filling the well with an unholy rattle. The rope jerked, tossing him to the right.
“Hold, God damn it!” he hollered up the well.
A second later, through the ringing in his ears he heard Kevin echo, “Hold, God damn it!”
The rope lurched once more and steadied. Snakes slithered in a panic, bodies slipping over bodies as they bit and fought, looking for the enemy. As if death wasn’t all around, Jackson smiled at Mimi. “See, honey? Easy as pie.”
Mimi looked at him blankly and then motioned to her ears. “I can’t hear you.”
She didn’t need to hear to know what it meant when he held out his hand. She placed hers in it with the quiet dignity he’d noticed before. Her hand was dainty and feminine, without a callus, but there were a few bumps he bet were blisters.
“Ready to go?” he mouthed, drawing her to her feet.
Watching the snakes nervously, she nodded.
“Put your arms—arm—around my neck.”
She hesitated. The snakes were taking advantage of the hesitation to fill the empty space around them. It was only a matter of seconds before they attacked.
“Will it hold both of us?”
“I don’t see why not.” If he discounted their combined weight, and the roughness of the wall rubbing against it, they were clear. And if he ignored the possibility of a snake sitting on a ledge halfway up ready to take a bite, they might make it out of here. Shaping the words clearly, he ordered, “Now, put your foot on mine and let’s leave these snakes to their fun.”
Her foot topped his and her good arm went around his neck. She smelled of honeysuckle, of all things. Not giving her a chance to change her mind, he locked his arm around her waist and called, “Go, Tony.”
The order was repeated. The rope lurched. They swung. Snakes struck. He felt their fangs hit his thick boots before they fell harmlessly back. Jackson used his free leg to bounce them off the wall. The rope slid a little faster. Time limped as they were hauled up, leaving him nothing to do but hope. Hope the rope wasn’t being too chewed up by the wall. Hope that damn snake halfway up had only been an echo. Just the thought of those fangs sinking into Mimi’s soft flesh made him sick. She’d never survive. He wrapped his arms around her, tucking his shoulders in, shielding her as best he could. If God was paying attention, there wouldn’t be a snake.
A minute later, he knew God wasn’t paying attention. The biggest snake he’d ever seen was perched eye level a foot from his face on a ledge too small for its thick coils. A deeper shadow amidst the shadow. And it didn’t look happy. Slowly, it pulled into a tight coil.
“What is it?” Mimi asked, stretching up.
“Grab the rope above my head with your good arm, and for God’s sake, don’t let go.”
She did as he said, and the move brought her face even with his. In spite of the danger, he couldn’t help but notice she had very kissable lips. Keeping his eye on the snake, he yelled, “Fast, Kevin. Tell Tony, fast.”
“But you said slow.”
The snake coiled tighter, head poised, tail shaking so fast the rattle sounded like a steady roar. And they were sitting ducks.
The rope lurched as they were yanked up level with the snake and then just stopped. Shit! Jackson saw the rattler’s intent a second before it struck. Kicking off the wall, he spun them so his back whipped toward the snake.
In that second, that split second in which time slowed to a morbid crawl and his focus narrowed to the dirt-scuffed cheeks of the soft woman with the pouting red lips and pure sass attitude, Jackson realized he didn’t want to go out with his boots on and a heroic devil-take-the-hindmost smile. No, he decided as Mimi’s eyes widened and her full lips parted in a gasp as she looked over his shoulder. He didn’t want that at all. Not when he could finagle a reality sweeter than his unfulfilled dreams. Mimi’s eyes flashed to his. Blue. Her eyes were a deep summer sky blue.
The snake struck. It was hard to sort the first impact from the second. Jackson didn’t even try. Accepting his fate, he leaned in and stole his last kiss.