August 6, 1958

James and Nell Frayne strolled along the flagged stone path to the summerhouse.  On this humid August evening, it would provide a pleasant, shaded spot open to whatever breezes lightened the air.  Nell reached for her husband’s hand and smiled up at him.

“Oh, James!” she exclaimed.  “I wish Win and Katie lived nearer to us.  Little Jimmy is so sweet, and so interested in everything!  I’d love to be able to see him more often.”

“Win is as hardheaded as his uncle, I’m afraid.”  James squeezed her hand.  “He loves his work at Partridge Run and I doubt if I could do anything to prize him away from the outdoor life.  I wish I could offer him something close to that, but...”  He sighed.

“You’re right, and of course I want him to be happy.”  Nell sighed, too.   They walked  in silence for a few paces, and then she stopped short.  “Oh!  I nearly forgot!”  She pulled an envelope from the pocket of her dress and waved it in front of his face.  “I had a letter from Katie today, thanking us for having them here.  She enclosed a couple of snapshots of Jimmy.”

“We’ll look at it in the summerhouse.  You can read it to me; I left my spectacles inside.”  He frowned, glancing toward the lightning-struck elm that had narrowly missed the summerhouse when it fell during the previous night’s storm.   Several of its branches were pushed right up against the screened sides of the structure.  “I’ll get Gallagher to start cutting up that tree tomorrow.  Maybe the Spencers will let their gardener help.  I’ll gladly let them have most of the firewood.”

“That’ll be a big job.  I hope the humidity won’t be as bad as it’s been today,” Nell replied.  “I’d have expected it to drop after all the lightning.”

“I think it’s just the hurricane season.  We’ll have more sweltering days until Labor Day, at least.”  They continued the short distance in companionable silence until they reached the threshold of their favorite spot.

Stepping inside, James glanced around with a curious expression.  “Quiet out here tonight, compared to the past few days.  I have to say I don’t miss the infernal racket of those screeching cicadas.”  He began his habitual check for snakes under the cushions of the glider, the two wicker armchairs, and the new double porch swing they’d installed earlier in the summer.  Nell waited, perusing the letter and gazing at the two enclosed pictures with a fond smile on her face.

“Eight o’clock and all’s well,” he announced with a grin.  “Lady’s choice.”  He bowed from the waist, extending his arm with an exaggerated twirl of his hand.

“Let’s sit in the swing tonight.”  She took her seat and settled her glasses on her nose, handing him the letter as she did.  He took his seat next to her and returned the letter, giving a slight push to the swing.

“Let me read before we swing,” she suggested.  “It’s not too dark to read Katie’s writing but I can see it better if I’m sitting still.  Here, you hold the pictures while I read.”

The first few sentences were conventional pleasantries thanking the senior Fraynes for their hospitality, and James suppressed a bored yawn.  Katie was nice enough, but not the girl he’d wanted his beloved nephew to marry.  But if Win loved her, he supposed he could tolerate her.  Nell’s next words captured his wandering thoughts, though.

I went to the doctor yesterday, and he gave me the most wonderful news!  Win and I are expecting another child in about six months.”

“Jiminy Cricket!  Great Jumping Jehosephat!”  James exclaimed.  Forgetting Nell’s request in his excitement, he gave a vigorous push to the swing.  

“James!” Nell protested with a little laugh.  The laugh was cut short as something fell across her shoulders from overhead, and she jumped from the swing with a bloodcurdling scream.  James saw that the fallen thing was a copperhead snake, and he slid off the swing as well, his skin crawling with repulsion as he stared in shock at the reptile, fat with its latest meal.  Carefully, he stopped the swing to prevent it from hitting Nell.  She shuddered, her eyes wide and staring in terror, the air vibrating with her screams.  James reached to grab the snake, not knowing what else to do, when its head suddenly whipped forward and its fangs sank into his wife’s shoulder. 

Nell’s terrified screams changed to shrieks that left no doubt about the excruciating pain she suffered as the copperhead’s bite pierced her skin and venom entered her system.  James stared in horrified paralysis as the snake writhed, trapped inside her belted dress.  Shaking uncontrollably, his wife jerked and gave an agonized cry as it struck again in the region of her lower ribcage.

James grabbed the front of her dress, ripping it open.  The snake dropped awkwardly to the ground and slithered away, moving as quickly as it was able to.

He let it go, his only thought for his wife.  Nell’s eyes rolled back in her head and she went limp, crumpling toward him.  He managed to catch her before she hit the floor, and scooped her awkwardly into his arms.  “Nell!  Darling!”  A scent like a basketful of cucumbers seemed to cling to her and he could see two spots of blood seeping through the shoulder of her dress.  Her eyelids fluttered open.

“James... It hurts... oh, God!”

“Did it bite you again, dearest?”  He tried to conceal his fear and took a few steps to the door of the summerhouse.

“Yes, on my side.  Oh... it’s burning... it’s like a hot poker...”  She moaned.  “You can’t carry me,” she protested.  “Let me walk to the house.  Get Gallagher to take me to Dr. Ferris.”

“That will take too long.  I’ll take you to the hospital.”  Still carrying her, he strode as quickly as possible toward the car, parked in the driveway under a tree.  Although past seventy, he was vigorous and active, but he wasn’t used to carrying such a burden.  Every few steps he had to pause, set her down and catch his breath before carrying her farther, but adrenaline fueled his strength and they finally reached the vehicle.  “Can you lean against the car, darling?” he asked.  She nodded with eyes closed, and managed to stand while he opened the door.  As he settled her into the passenger seat, she moaned involuntarily, her face drawn into a grimace.         

I’m taking the old shortcut, he decided. Ensuring she was completely inside, he closed the door and hurried around to the driver’s side, sliding into his seat and turning the key that was already in the ignition.  Once on the narrow, twisting “shortcut”, he wondered briefly if it had been the wisest decision to take that route.   True, there was no traffic, but there were also no streetlights and he hated driving at night; his night vision wasn’t good anymore and the car’s headlights didn’t light up the road enough to satisfy him.   Beside him, Nell moaned again.  It was too late to turn back.  Gripping the wheel, he squinted into the rapidly falling darkness and willed the road to straighten out.

The headlights illuminated the one-lane covered bridge that was the main reason few people used the old shortcut anymore.  James slowed even more, taking the time to make sure there were no oncoming headlights, and then pressed down on the gas pedal to get through it as quickly as possible.  Nell’s moaning took on a higher pitch as the car rattled across the wooden span.  That sound now accompanied every exhaled breath she made; each one stabbed into his brain.  “We’ll be at the hospital soon, dearest,” he assured her, hoping it was the truth. 

They were across the bridge now, and he reached across the seat to squeeze her hand, just as a flash of movement in front of the car made him stomp on the brake; he threw his right arm out to keep Nell from hitting the windshield.  Three white-tailed deer leaped across the road.  James let out a whoosh of breath, amazed none of them had jumped right onto the car, as deer were wont to do.  He released the brake and pressed on the gas again. 

Nothing happened. 

He noticed then that he couldn’t hear the motor purring.  This Buick was quiet, but not that quiet.  He turned the key to the “off” position and then tried restarting the car.

Nothing happened.

He tried again.  Nothing.  “Damn it to hell!”

“What’s wrong, dear?”  Nell roused to ask. 

“Nothing, dearest,” he lied.  “I think I just flooded the engine when I tried to start the car.  Just sit tight for a few minutes and we’ll be going again.”  He peered at the dash to check the gas gauge.  Lately Gallagher had been complaining that the gauge wasn’t working properly, but James had suspected the gardener was just avoiding driving.  But the dash was dark.  He hadn’t turned off the lights, so why was that?   Now he was ready to panic.   Could the battery be dead?  How old is it, anyway?   The car was four years old… Frantically, he tried to remember whether he’d ever bought a new battery for it, but couldn’t recall.  If the battery was dead... or if they were out of gas... it was a mile to the nearest help.  He couldn’t leave Nell alone long enough to find someone who could siphon a gallon of gas for him or jump his battery.

Maybe it was nothing.  He tried to start the car again.  Nothing.   He had to face the truth.  They were stuck here alone, and it was highly unlikely that help would happen along.  How could he have put off getting that gas gauge checked out?  Why hadn’t he asked Gallagher to keep the tank filled until it was fixed for sure?  How could he not know if the battery was at the end of its lifespan?  Why hadn’t he asked the mechanic to check it the last time he had an oil change?  The questions whirled around in his mind with no answers.  I’m a senile old goat, he told himself.  Nell’s moans had resumed, lacerating his already guilty conscience.

“Nell, my darling,” he finally said.  “Listen to me.”  He scooted across the bench seat so that he could gather her into his arms.

“Yes, dearest?”  She opened her eyes and looked trustingly into his face.  He almost broke down then, but took a deep breath and started to speak.

“Either the battery is dead or we might be out of gas.  The nearest place I could get help is probably Lytell’s, and it’s a mile back.  The store is closed now, but I’m sure I could roust him out of his apartment upstairs.  I don’t like to leave you here, though.”  He sighed.  It wasn’t fair to ask her to make the choice.  Her eyes fluttered and closed.

“Don’t leave me, my dear,” she said after a few seconds, opening her eyes again.  “I don’t want to die alone.”

“You’re not going to die,” he protested.  “Someone will come along soon.”

“No.”  She took a couple of ragged breaths.  “I’m not afraid of dying.  The shoulder is on fire; my left side... I can’t take a deep breath.”  She struggled weakly against him.  “My stomach...” She retched, turning her head away from him as she vomited.

James did his best to support her, but he felt nauseated himself.  First the copperhead musk, like a basket of cucumbers; then his disgust and anger with himself; and now the sounds and smells of Nell’s distress caused him to roll down his car window as her spasms subsided.  As he reached into his trouser pocket for a handkerchief, he tried to unobtrusively put his head out the window for a breath of outside air.  After a few refreshing gulps, he used the inadequate piece of cloth to wipe her face and chest.   

The car reeked from the sour smell of vomit, so he reached over Nell to roll down her window as well.  The air was still sultry after the day’s heat, and he felt sweat beading on his forehead and running down his back.  How miserable must Nell feel? 

“How do you feel now, my dear?” he asked.  “What can I do for you?”

A faint groan was his only answer for several seconds.  “Still sick... but surely my stomach is empty now.  If I don’t move it’s not so bad...”  Her voice faded.  James touched her face and felt the same dampness that beaded his own.   He wished he had another handkerchief.

“Hold me, James.”  Nell’s voice was weaker in the short time they’d been stalled.  He studied his watch’s face as he lifted her onto his lap, trying to avoid the sticky, damp spot on her left side.  It was hard to make out the numbers, but the time appeared to be no later than 9:15. 

“I’m here, dearest,” he assured her.  “I’ll be right here.”  He clasped her right hand with his own.

“That’s good,” she answered without opening her eyes.  “I love you, James.”

“I love you, Nell.”  There was nothing left to say.  They sat in silence as the sounds of a summer night went on around them.  Nell’s moans continued, but they became fainter as the cicadas and owls filled the air with their calls.  James wondered if the pain was receding or if she was getting worse.  He prayed, bargaining with the God he had always accepted without question.

Heal her, let her live; make someone come along who can help us.  I’ll have a new bell tower built for the church.  I’ll retire the building debt on the hospital.  I’ll do anything if you’ll just save her for me.

Finally, exhausted with the realization of his own powerlessness, he dozed.

“Mr. Frayne!  Mr. Frayne, what’s wrong?”  James jerked into wakefulness at the sound of a familiar voice.  Opening his eyes, he saw Dewey Lytell, the storekeeper, leaning into the car.  It was still dark.

“What—what are you doing out here?”   He felt like an idiot, but really—why would Lytell be out here on the old road this time of night?

“I’m on my way back from the truck farm in Albany where I buy produce every week.  The question is, why are you and Mrs. Frayne out here?”  The skinny storekeeper pulled a pair of spectacles from his pocket and peered into the car, past James.  “Is Mrs. Frayne all right?”

“No... she was bitten by a copperhead,” James admitted.  “I was rushing her to the hospital when...I don’t know... the car died.  I don’t know if it’s a dead battery or out of gas... the fuel gauge has been acting up...”  He was babbling.  “Can you help us?”  In the garish illumination from Lytell’s headlights, he noticed that Nell’s skin looked gray.  She was warm, though.  Maybe there was time.

“Put the car into neutral and steer it off the road while I push,” Mr. Lytell told him.  “Then I’ll get the truck turned around and take you to the hospital.” 

James felt a faint renewal of strength, now that there was someone who could help them.  It wasn’t easy, but within fifteen minutes the two men had moved the car off the major part of the road and James sat in the truck’s passenger seat, Nell cradled in his arms.  She was frighteningly silent, but still breathing.

Mr. Lytell managed to turn the truck around and finally they were en route to the hospital again.

Doctor Ferris entered the Emergency Waiting Room, and James rose instantly.   The middle-aged physician walked slowly, without the usual spring in his step.  As he neared James, he pulled off his glasses and polished them on the edge of his white lab coat before replacing them on his face.

“Doctor Ferris, please... how is my Nell?” he blurted out, afraid to hear the answer but unable to wait any longer.  Nell had been back in the Emergency Room with the doctor and nurse for a long time.  As soon as he’d carried her into the Emergency entrance, an orderly had rolled out a stretcher and taken her straight back.  No one had come out to speak to him since, and he’d even sent Dewey Lytell back home.  He had paced back and forth until he’d probably taken the wax off the polished floor along the track he’d made.

Doctor Ferris reached out to clasp his hand.  “Mr. Frayne, I’m sorry.  We did everything we could, but your wife... Mrs. Frayne died.”

James felt the breath leave his body, and everything went black for a second.  Strong hands lowered him into one of the waiting room chairs and pushed his head down between his knees for a short time.

He opened his eyes to see a young woman in a white uniform, white stockings and shoes, and a white winged cap bending over him.  “Mr. Frayne, please try a sip of this cold water.  It’ll make you feel better.”

Obediently, he took the paper cup and sipped the water, but he knew she was wrong.  Nothing would ever make him feel better again.  “It’s my fault; I never should have tried the shortcut.”  The words tumbled out.  Dr. Ferris nodded at the nurse, who left the waiting room as silently as she’d come in.

Doctor Ferris was speaking again.  “Don’t blame yourself, Mr. Frayne.  Your wife was bitten twice, but copperhead bites aren’t normally fatal.  It appears that she may have had a heart attack, perhaps from the pain and stress of the bite, as well as the venom circulating in her system.  I believe it wouldn’t have made any difference if she’d arrived sooner.”

“I should have checked the summerhouse more thoroughly.  I should have suspected something when it was so quiet.”

“Would you like to see her?”  The doctor’s voice was gentle.  “I’ll go in with you if you want to spend some time with her.”

“No, no.  I can’t.  I can’t do it.  Please.”  He didn’t even feel the tears threatening.  Only when one rolled down his face and slid off his chin did he realize he was crying.  Unthinking, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the filthy handkerchief he’d last used to wipe Nell’s face.  He stared at it for a second, as if it was a completely foreign object, then stood up and walked over to a trash receptacle, where he dropped it inside.  When he walked back to Dr. Ferris, his eyes were dry.  “What do I need to do now, Doc?” he asked.

“There’s a bit of paperwork, and then you can let us know what funeral home to call.  I’ll send my nurse out to you in a few minutes with the papers.  Once we have that information, we’ll call someone to pick you up and take you home.”

James nodded, but the words Dr. Ferris had spoken floated in the air, meaningless to him. 

Nell is gone.  Nell is gone and it’s my fault.   

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Author’s Notes

3278 words

I never wanted to write the story of Nell Frayne's encounter with the copperhead. But I started getting an idea about how James became such a hermit, and was curious about how it may have happpened. That led to quite a bit of (rigorous) research on the internet, as well as consulting with my son-in-law (he has been a snake-breeder and seller, although never dealing in copperheads). Copperhead bites are very painful and cause local tissue death, but human beings rarely if ever die from a copperhead bite. So I needed to find some whay it could have injected venom closer to vital organs (or so I decided). Everything the snake does in this story has been documented. Although copperheads rarely climb, they have been known to climb trees to catch cicadas. voila! A story was born.

Thank you to my fabulous editors, Ronda, Ryl, and Trish!  Your comments, suggestions, and corrections are greatly appreciated!  Any errors remaining are my own, and not their fault.

Thank you to all of my readers.  You all are the best!

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. All other material on these pages copyright 2006-2016 by MaryN/Dianafan. Background tile and strip created by Mary N. Images obtained via Google Image searches and used in accordance with defined usage rights; manipulated by Mary N in Photoshop. Graphics copyright by Mary N 2016.

Story copyright by Mary N, 2016.

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