Clarence held a branch back and grinned down at Sheila as she brushed past him. He didn't need to say anything. It was in his eyes. He thought she was ready to cave in. Not likely. She was going to finish this fifteen mile hike if it killed her. What was fifteen miles? She probably walked three times that every day. Of course, the hospital corridors were air conditioned, and there were no obstacles to climb over and duck under. Still, the floors were concrete, and she walked fast most of the time, often without a break.
According to Clarence, no woman could stand up to the rigors of a southern Arkansas swamp. It was best she deflate that macho ego of his now, and not wait until after they were married. She wasn't about to bow and scrape to any man. She was a woman of the twenty-first century - as capable as any man.
She paused on the trail, allowing him to take the lead.
“Go ahead,” she said dryly. “This is your turf. You're supposed to know the way.”
He chuckled as he stepped around her. “Getting a little cranky? We've only come five miles. Are you sure you want to continue?”
She gave him a sour look. “I'm fine. Anyway, if we turned back now, it would be a total of ten miles. Do you really think I would stop after traveling two-thirds of the way?”
He laughed shortly. “No. You'd die before you'd admit you were wrong.” He moved out on the trail, his stride so long that she had to run a few steps to catch up. “Anyway,” he threw over his shoulder in a casual tone. “From here on out, it gets worse.”
Worse? How could it get any worse? Already she felt like she was crawling with ticks and chiggers. The underbrush was thick and full of thorns that stabbed at her legs through the thick jeans. As if that wasn't enough, the heat was stifling. The air was motionless and laden with moisture. Worse? No, he was only trying to scare her. He'd like to see her turn back now. But this trek was more than a small wager. If she gave in now, she'd be giving in for the rest of her life - and he knew it. Only ten more miles - then he'd know that if he wanted to be king of the castle, he'd better recognize her as queen.
Inside of ten minutes, it was obvious that he was not exaggerating. The ground gave at each step and mosquitoes came out to greet them in hordes. The air was thick with the smell of rotting vegetation. She wrinkled her nose as she glanced around at the moss hanging from the trees. Why would Clarence willingly spend hours in this god forsaken place? At first it had been to gather information for his dissertation, but he'd graduated from college more than a year ago. If he already found teaching boring enough to need this kind of diversion, surely he must have chosen the wrong profession.
She tugged her foot out of some sticky mud and made a face. At this rate her hiking boots wouldn't last fifteen miles. They would be ruined. And for what? Was this his idea of fun? How could two people love each other when they had so little in common?
For the second time in as many days, it crossed her mind that she might be marrying the wrong man. Last night, as they watched television, she had been overwhelmed by the feeling. First of all, he always had to have the remote control - and control was the operative word. He'd flash through the channels, pausing on everything that made her yawn, and then sprint through the interesting shows. He wasn't trying to skip anything she found interesting - he simply had no clue. He wasn't intentionally monopolizing the television, either. In fact, he would even ask her if she saw anything she wanted to watch. But he wasn't about to hand her the remote control. He would provide the entertainment. Macho man.
She trudged after Clarence, her boots making slurping sounds with each step. Okay - so shut the TV off. There were plenty of other things to do, right? Weren't they the best couple on the bowling team? And how about dancing? Didn't they win the contest last year? They both liked to hike. She made a face. And here they were, hiking through a slimy swamp - his choice again. Only he hadn't selected this area with her enjoyment in mind. This was a test. Well, actually, he viewed it as a lesson.
She squared her shoulders and lifted her tired feet higher. She'd show him. Shut out the drone of insects - hear only the birds. Ignore the stench. Concentrate on the unusual flowers. He wasn't going to win this round. She'd walk the fifteen miles all right...and enjoy it.
If she had been concentrating on the trail, she might have seen the serpent in time to take some evasive action. Instead, she froze. At that point everything seemed to happen in slow motion.
The snake drew back, hissing as it exposed the white inside of its mouth. The head rose from the coils, ready to strike. Realization slowly sank into her numbed brain that she could die out here - far from help. That was when she screamed.
Clarence swung around, assessing the situation in an instant. Without hesitation, he threw his body between her and the snake. He gripped her shoulders as they fell against a tree. She felt him stiffen. Heard his sudden gasp of air and the choked cry on the end - saw the snake dangling from his leg as he tried to shake the fangs free.
And then the snake dropped to the ground. It struck again, but this time Clarence managed to deflect the strike with the bottom of his boot. The snake dropped to the ground again and slithered into the brush, the end of its tail vibrating a silent and posthumous warning.
For a moment they stared at each other, too shocked to react. Finally reality sank in, and Sheila knelt to examine the wound. Two puncture marks oozed blood on the calf of his leg. Now it was her turn to save him. After all, she was a nurse. But she couldn't carry him out of the swamp. Leave him to get help? But what if he went into cardiac arrest while she was gone? Someone needed to stay with him - and someone needed to go for help. She drew a deep breath and let it out. Someone needed to take care of him now. She forced the fog of panic away from her brain. Snake bite. What had she been taught? A tourniquet. She removed her belt and slipped it around his leg above the bite. Then she pulled it snug until the veins bulged below the belt. Good. Enough circulation to keep the leg alive.
She tried her cell phone first and then his. There was no signal. Under normal circumstances, the tourniquet would be enough until they got him to the hospital. But he would be in serious trouble by the time someone reached them. She would have to lance the wound and draw out the poison. They hadn't thought ahead far enough to bring a snake bite kit, but any good-old-boy should have a sharp pocket knife.
She glanced up to find Clarence holding out his pocket knife.
“Do you want me to do it?” His eyes were expressionless. He had already resigned himself to what lay ahead.
She shook her head. “I can do it.” She opened the knife. If only they had something to sterilize the knife with. There wasn't time to build a fire. She poised the knife over his leg, remembering some comment about the anti bacterial values of saliva. It would have to do.
She began the cuts, making a small X over each bite. Clarence winced and stiffened, but he sat quietly. She leaned over and sucked salty blood from his leg. There wasn't time to get sick, only suck and spit. The process needed to be done repeatedly, for an hour or so, but no one was going to wander by, and Clarence couldn't reach it. Not that he could keep it up for long, anyway.
Clarence cleared his throat. “That's enough, sweetheart. Can you remember the way back to the car?”
She stared at him, not wanting to accept the fact. “I can't just leave you here like this.”
He grimaced. “What choice do you have? You've done all you can.”
She shook her head. “But I can't....”
“We're wasting precious time arguing,” he cut her off shortly. “Can you find your way back to the car?”
His sharp response cleared her mind, as it was intended to, no doubt. She nodded and rose. She wanted to tell him she loved him, but he knew that. Making the statement at such a time would only remind him of the peril he was in - especially coming from a registered nurse. So she simply gazed down at him with her best professional smile.
“Yes. Of course. Don't try to move around. I'll be right back.”
He nodded. “I'll be fine.” He leaned against the tree and grimaced. “Be careful.”
She ran. Not blindly, though. He was depending on her to bring back help. If she fell and broke a leg, or got snake bit herself, he would die before someone discovered them. Why had they gone out alone? Why hadn't they considered this possibility? The answer was obvious. They had been too busy with their stupid power struggle. Clarence had been brought up to believe a man should take care of a woman. It wasn't a power thing to him, it was a duty. Sure, sometimes he got a little carried away. But was it so important who held the remote control? Today he had been willing to sacrifice his life for her - so strong was his dedication. Macho man? He was all man.
She moved as fast as possible, careful not to loose her way in haste. There was the gnarled old cedar. She stopped and tried the cell phone again. No luck. Further on was the stump that looked like a lantern. She must be half way to the car now. Then the creek and the red-gray stone that looked so shiny under its surface. Finally the open field and then the road. There was the car. Once again she tried the cell phone. This time she got a connection but lost it again before she could talk to anyone.
Her hands shook as she jabbed the key in the ignition. Only then did she notice the blood on her arms from all the branches she had pushed aside. But that was nothing. She started the car and paused. It would be smart to mark this spot. She took the time to stack a few rocks in the middle of the road and then took off in the direction of town. Would she make it back in time? Was Clarence suffering now? Would he loose his leg - his life?
A truck was coming her way. Maybe she could send them for help and return to Clarence. She slammed on the breaks and leaped from the car, waving her hands wildly. The truck slid to a stop in a spray of gravel. A forest ranger leaned out the window.
“What's the matter, miss? Are you having car trouble?”
She shook her head. “No. It's my fiancé'. He's been snake bit.” She blurted the story out as briefly as possible.
The ranger radioed for a chopper and then followed her back to the spot where they had parked the car. Grabbing a first aid kit and a cellular phone from his truck, he followed her back into the swamp.
As it turned out, the chopper found Clarence before they reached him. A rescue was well under way by the time they reached the spot where she had left him. He was pale and sweating, and he had been retching uncontrollably, but he was alive. His leg was swollen, but it had some color.
Clarence had to be hoisted up to the chopper in a stretcher, and Sheila had to watch from the ground as the chopper flew away. He was in good hands now, and there was nothing more she could do. She had five miles to hike back to the car and her legs felt like rubber already. All the same, it took her less time to get back - probably because she had the ranger to help her along. Where did men hold such reserves of energy?
Two days later Clarence was ready to be released from the hospital - leg and all. She stood beside his hospital bed and held his hand. It could have been different. They were both fortunate, not only because they were both alive, but because they had a chance to start over. What if he had died? Their last day together would have ended with conflict. She lifted his hand to her lips.
“I love you Clarence.”
He smiled up at her. “And I love you.” He tugged at her hand and she sat down on the side of his bed. “You saved my life.” His smile slipped sideways. “And I lost the bet.”
She quirked a brow. “And which is more important?”
He squeezed her hand, his gaze becoming tender. “I was wrong. You walked fifteen miles - ten of it without my help.”
“Twenty, but who's counting?” Was that all he was sorry about?
She shrugged. “Five in. Five back out for help. Then five back in again to show them where you were, then five back out again. Twenty,” she concluded flippantly. Maybe it was best to let him recover before they spoke of the other.
His gaze shifted to the blanket, and he picked at a piece of fuzz. “I let you down.” His voice was low and controlled.
“Nonsense. If you hadn't thrown yourself between me and that snake, I'd be the one laying here right now.
His gaze lifted to her, and the shame in them was poignant. “If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't have been out there in the first place. I was so busy trying to prove you needed me that I couldn't think of anything else.”
She frowned. “Of course I need you. You're my best friend.”
He stared at her, his expression unreadable. “I want to take care of you, but you keep pushing me away. Always telling me you can do everything yourself.” His gaze shifted back to the blanket again. “And lately, it's like….” He paused to swallow. “I thought I was losing you.” He glanced up and the lopsided smile twisted his mouth. “I guess I got a little desperate. I lost my head.”
She touched his bristly cheek and swallowed a lump of shame. So he had been aware of her doubts, after all.
“I thought you were trying to control me. And it seemed we had so little in common. I wondered....” She couldn't bring herself to say it.
He frowned. “Little in common? What makes you think that? We have the same moral values. We both enjoy nature hikes - and children. We even like the same foods.” He shook his head. “We're two unique people, and we're bound to disagree at times. We're supposed to be joined at the heart, not the mind.” He patted her hand. “You're always trying to prove women can do anything men can do. It's almost like you want to prove women are better than men.” He raised his brows. “Or do you think I'm trying to prove men are better than women?” He shook his head again. “Women and men are equal, but they're different.” He grinned. “A fact for which I am truly grateful.”
She gnawed on her lower lip. Was she a female chauvinist? Had she robbed him of the opportunity to do things that made him feel like a man? The thought was sobering. He was right. The things they had in common were the basic building blocks for a marriage. Was it so important that he like the same television shows that she did? Did it matter that she was a Republican and he a Democrat? It wasn't as though he didn't do his share of cooking and dishes. He deserved a lot of credit, and she hadn't been giving him much. She met his questioning gaze.
“Maybe you're right. Our relationship has been turning into a competition lately.” She laced her fingers through his and smiled down at him. “I'll never question your motives again. I was so impressed with you out there in the woods. You were willing to protect me with your life. And then, when I had to cut your leg….” Her voice broke with emotion. “You were so brave.”
His cheeks darkened, but his eyes shone with a new light. “I wasn't brave. I was only taking on my responsibility - a little late, at that.”
She was afraid to speak, so she merely leaned forward, resting her head against his chest. She closed her eyes and prayed that she might be as good a wife as he would make a husband - her macho man.