The wind shifted. Grit blew up and stung my skin. My mouth went dry and my lips stuck to my teeth. The hairs on my arms stood at attention. In all of us, there’s an animalistic sense of danger that, once activated, pricks up its ears and coils in readiness.
“Mrs. Herman, I have a bad feeling about this,” I said. “Should I phone 911?”
“You ought as well call me Adeline,” she said. “Sam can be bossy as an old general, because that’s exactly what he is. I’m sure he’s got everything under control. No reason to get an ambulance until he takes a gander at the situation.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than her husband hollered back at us, “Adeline, dial 911. Tell ‘em to hurry.”
Adeline stepped to one side and shouted directions into her phone.
“Hey, girl. You get queasy at the sight of blood?” Sam yelled at me through the doorway.
Adeline covered her phone with her palm barely long enough to deliver my bona fides. “I meant to tell you this here’s Dick Potter’s youngest grandchild. She can handle whatever you toss her way, I’ll wager.”
I stepped inside and let my eyes adjust to the dark interior of the building. “Do you need help?”
“Yup. Get on over here.” Sam was leaning over John Haines’ prone body.
Sam’s broad fingertips pressed against a bubbling geyser. I expected that he’d move aside and let me take his place, but he didn’t seem in any big hurry. I took my place next to Adeline’s husband.
“My fingers are going numb. Arthritis.”
Waiting for him to yield, I planted my knees in a puddle of blood. Adeline’s husband turned to stare at me.
“You’re the spitting image of your grandmother, Josephina, don’t you know? Funny how that’ll happen. It can skip a generation. But you, your ma, and your sister, it’s like you were cut from the same bolt of cloth. I’m supposing you’ve got their gumption, too.” With a nod, he directed my attention to the wound. “We need to swap places real fast, so get ready. On the count of three. One, two, three.”
I pressed my hand over a ragged hole in a clean shaven neck. The ebb and flow of blood left a clear outline of the puncture wound. Only when I was positioned properly did I take time to look the victim over carefully. I guessed John Haines to be in his seventies. He was expensively dressed in a light blue Oxford cloth shirt and gray gabardine slacks. His brown leather topsiders appeared to be brand new. Of course, his skin was pale as a sheet of copier paper, but he might have once sported a nice tan. It was really hard to tell. The smell of copper and other body fluids was cloyingly sweet, disgustingly so. I swallowed hard and concentrated on keeping my fingers clamped together to use them as a barrier. No matter how I positioned the digits, blood leaked from between them. Looking up at Sam, I said, “I can’t stop the gushes. I mean, I’m trying, but I can’t do anything more. I even adjusted the placement of my hand to close it off, but it doesn’t seem to help.”
“I couldn’t stop it either.” He shook his head. “I figured my crippled old fingers weren’t up to the job. But I guess it’s just the way he got himself poked. Took one right in the jugular, didn’t he? See over yonder?” His knotty index finger pointed to an awl that had rolled against the baseboard. A spotty route of blood indicated its route.
A leather strap rested on the floor, not far from the awl.
Sam explained, “See that? It’s called a sailor’s palm. They used it to cushion the awl when they punched holes in the canvas sails. If John had left it in his throat, rather than yanking it out, he wouldn’t be bleeding like a stuck pig. Probably not much we can do for him. Not now. He’s like one of them jugs with the cork pulled out of it.”
I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold my position. Folded up as I was in an uncomfortable position, my calves and feet were going numb. The needle and pins feeling in my toes forced me to shift my weight as I tried to relieve the pain.
Mr. Haines’s eyes fluttered open. They fixated on me.
I stared down at him and realized that my face might be the last one he’d see. Fleetingly—and stupidly—I wished I’d worn more makeup. Hadn’t my mother always warned me about leaving the house without putting on my face? Despite the desperate circumstances, I did my best to smile at John Haines and look calm.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said.
“No, it’s not. I’m dying.”
My heart plummeted in my chest. I chided myself for being shallow. How could I worry about makeup? A man was dying beneath my fingertips.
There was so little I could do but pray. My Roman Catholic upbringing served me well, as I had an entire catalog of prayers to choose from.
“Hang in there,” I urged the man whose blood was thrumming between my fingers. “Hang on. Help is coming.”
“My granddaddy warned me not to tell…I knew better… should never have opened my big mouth,” and with a hiss, his soul leaked out of him.
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