Thrown by that horse, was his first jumbled thought. That worthless roan. He was not a terrible horseman; but that mare had looked at him with almost a feverish eye, and fought the bit. But deep as he was in the opium, and deep as his infatuation was with Mary Henneman (whose father owned this land for miles around), he had jerked the reins and imposed his will upon the beast. Now she had had her revenge.
With great effort, Gowan MacMillan lifted his head and looked down at his body, aware of profound pain through the haze of the drug – grave bodily injury – his leg especially. He saw the blood soaking his gray trousers below the knee, lay his head back and croaked, “Help.” With that he was exhausted, and closed his eyes. He could just fall back asleep – that was the wonder of laudanum. Whatever your condition, the tincture laid a calming hand upon your brow and said, “It’s all right, it’s always been all right, everything will always be all right.” Sweet Mother Poppy.
No, dear God. You could bleed out as you lie here, you idiot. The others may not even know where you are. With a great effort, he opened his eyes again, looked up at the forest canopy – the strangely thick and verdant forest canopy – and yelled with what strength he could muster, “Help! HELP!”
He heard no response. What if they had all ridden completely away? Fox hunts could go for miles. Even the followers might be far off. But surely somebody … “HELP! I’M INJURED! HELP!”
With that he lay gasping, listening. Nothing. No, not nothing: the sound of water nearby. A stream or creek. Insects buzzing, small gnats around his eyes, mosquitoes in his ears.
Physician, heal thyself. Very well; he was perfectly qualified to deal with his own injuries, if he had the tools at hand. Now up!
With terrific effort he rolled partially onto his side, then pushed himself up to sitting, the increasingly insistent pain in his right leg now joined by a chorus of discomforts from ribs, shoulder, left arm, abrasions on his face … dear God, had the horse dragged him through this forest?
No; not forest. Jungle. Not hardly the welcoming deciduous arbor, the maples and ashes and oaks of his native northern land; but huge vinous trees, broad-leafed vegetation, carmine flowers, enormous ferns, deep shade. Sweet Mother, where am I?
Memory crept in, bits and fragments, like flotsam from a destroyed vessel drifting in with the tide. They had gone up in Joubert’s balloon, the balloon Joubert had sworn up and down was safe – ambitious, brilliant, fat, absurd Joubert. Over the Worldwall, with MacMillan taking a double dose of laudanum just before setting off, to steady his nerves and to celebrate, to heighten what was sure to be the most extraordinary of experiences.
Then… fire, panic, helplessness. Death and damnation. At the last, Macmillan had tried to hold on to the professor’s belt as the man struggled with the release valve for the phlogiston. That was all he remembered; all, he suspected, he would ever remember.
Irrelevant now. Ignore the difficulty breathing – broken ribs most likely, nothing he could do about internal bleeding if such was the case – focus on the leg. The foot and ankle at a quite unnatural ankle, clearly both fibula and tibia shattered, most likely the ankle as well. He had no instruments nearby – who knew where his surgeon’s case was now? – but here, on his belt, was both knife and pistol, which Durmoth had insisted upon for each member of their expedition. A man without a knife is a sad creature indeed, he recalled the explorer saying. Weaker than any ape, teeth duller than any dog. But give him a knife, and he can reshape the world. MacMillan had never much liked Durmoth, as coarse a fellow as any he’d met, but bless his hard-headedness now.
Tugging the blade free from its sheath, MacMillan slit his trousers up the leg, grimace deepening when he saw the protruding bone and rapidly flowing blood. A severe break, and how was he to set it alone? A tourniquet, then; and if no one came in the next hour or two, an amputation, and likely death. One could not survive such trauma unaided and unsheltered.
He undid his belt, wondering as he did if he could indeed tighten it adequately, thinking wistfully of the modern tourniquet in his case, with its screw compressor mechanism. As the belt came free, the pistol fell to the ground, and he suddenly realized his idiocy. The pistol – louder than any shouted plea!
Fumbling and trembling, he got it free of the holster, checked the rounds in the revolving chamber – they looked perfectly fine, unharmed by the fall – raised it at a forty-five degree angle, cocked the hammer and fired. The recoil ran through his ribs with a jolt of pain, but by God, if there was anyone else alive, they would hear that!
But looking down from his shot, he saw that something else had certainly heard it as well: something crouched amid the ferns not five yards distant, that made him freeze in terror.
He had never seen nor heard of any creature like it. His first impression was of something almost plantlike – a large fan of dark green spikes or quills, and beneath them some dangling pinkish roots. Then the roots pulled away, revealing a sort of spotted, oddly ridged beak, and the creature emitted a stuttering cough, deeply unpleasant to the ears.
It stepped forward, and he saw prominent claws upon its feet. It was about the size of a large collie, mottled green and black, like the shadows of leaves upon the forest floor; but the movements of its birdlike limbs were stealthy, with a long sinuous tail behind it, and instantly he conceived of it as a predator. It was not furred but rather finely scaled; and the scales on its back rose into black spines.
Most peculiar, though, was its head, defined most by that fanning crest of spines, and the extremely unusual snout, like an elephant’s trunk that had been divided and then divided again, so the pinkish ends were like a child’s hands, or tiny squids, waving and touching the air. It seemed to have no eyes that he could see; but two flaps to either side, which might have been its nostrils, flapped and puffed.
MacMillan lowered the pistol, fixing his aim. The beast looked like it could move fast; he might not have much chance at a second shot if it charged. Again the creature coughed, in a higher pitch, and cocked its head as though in query; and to his dismay, the surgeon heard a responding call to his left. His head snapped in that direction; he saw another animal of the same anomalous species hopping onto a fallen tree; he snapped back to the first, which was advancing on him step by step; he heard still another call to the right; and he fired.
It wasn’t a direct hit, but it threw the creature back, and it screamed. Its companion to the left heard its cry of distress, and made a raspy, coughing roar, that evil beak again protruding from beneath its trunks as its maw opened wide; and MacMillan turned and fired at it as well.
This one he only grazed on its flank, and it fell scrabbling forward off its log, screaming at him in obvious anger. He pulled the trigger again, kicked up soil, realized the creature seemed to be bleeding black blood – what animal on God’s green earth had black blood? – glimpsed movement on his right even as he was trying to pull himself toward the nearest tree so his back would not be exposed. He turned just in time to put a bullet through the chest of a third beast, close enough that its claws scrabbled at the thick wool peacoat he wore.
Meanwhile the second creature, the one he had hit on its flank, had leapt back over its log and was coming fast toward him. He glimpsed more approaching fast in the jungle – how many, he didn’t know. He fired wildly, one, twice, to no effect; and then heard the impotent click of the hammer on an empty chamber, the click that meant his death. Desperately, he snatched with his left hand at the knife he’d dropped earlier, holding the revolver in his right as a club, certain that in a bare moment he would feel the rending of one of those beaks in his flesh, that his last experience would be being eaten alive.
The foremost beast leapt; he himself screamed; then a gunshot rang out, and the creature was thrown right over his damaged legs. More gunshots, and here was Dick Durmoth, head bloodied, eyes wide, fierce and dark, charging with sword drawn at the closing circle of predators, yelling a powerful wordless battle-cry. MacMillan saw him swing savagely down on one animal’s head, cutting deep into the skull, killing it instantly; saw him yank the blade free and spin round at another, which darted back hissing.
Then the beasts literally turned tail and fled. In a second they disappeared into the jungle, and Durmoth strode back and forth with sword in one hand and pistol in the other. Finally, satisfied, he turned toward his wounded charge, even as their guide, Boleti, stepped forth from the jungle with rifle in hand. “Thank God,” rasped MacMillan, tears in his eyes. “Thank God.”
“Thank Boleti, more like,” Durmoth said. “It was his shot that saved you. Otherwise this thing would have had your neck.” He gave the body of the beast a savage kick, but sure it was dead.
“Thank you then, Boleti,” MacMillan said, and with that fell back into exhaustion.
He came to seconds later with Durmoth slapping his face, urging him to awaken. “We’ve got to set your leg, or have it off,” said the explorer.
“Yes,” said MacMillan. “Yes. Do you have my equipment?”
“Maybe somewhere. Not here.”
“Have you set a bone before?”
“Of course. Besides, I have Sykes here to help.” And MacMillan realized that indeed, the second lieutenant had joined them.
“Did everyone survive?”
“Bisette is back at the balloon, or what’s left of it. Joubert is gone, I expect dead. It’s incredible the five of us survived.”
Poor Joubert, MacMillan thought in a daze. But then, maybe the scientist was the lucky one. Under the surgeon’s direction, the men got set, Sykes kneeling on MacMillan’s thigh – some nasty burns on Sykes’s shoulder, presumably from the explosion; have to look at them later, assuming MacMillan survived – and on the mark Durmoth pulled and twisted with great force. MacMillan screamed, passed out, came to again with Durmoth slapping him, felt at the bones. “Again, while I push,” he grunted, clothes soaked with sweat, hands dripping with red. Again enormous, inconceivable pain, while he strove to keep force on the tibia, to put it into alignment.
This time the effort helped him retain consciousness, and feeling with his fingers concluded it would have to do. “Needle and thread?” he whispered.
“Not here,” Sykes replied. “Bisette will have some at the balloon, I expect.”
Yes; and perhaps his surgical case, with all its instruments … and the carboy of laudanum, a promise of relief MacMillan clung to with a desperate fixation. “A bandage then. And a splint. And water, by God.”
Durmoth and Boleti carried MacMillan back to their purely nominal camp hanging on their shoulders like a drunk, Sykes keeping an eye out with rifle at the ready. The first sign of the location was the red, blue and yellow silk in the tree above; below that scarred and burnt banner, still twenty feet from the ground, hung the wooden cabin, at a crazy angle. Bisette walked the jungle floor below it, evidently largely unharmed, evidently gathering up whatever of their scattered supplies she could find.
When he saw that she had found his surgical case, a small red-painted box bound in brass, he began weeping from relief. He wept again when he saw that within it the carboy, the glass jug that had held that most precious elixir, the ease-inducing, pain-destroying laudanum, was utterly, irrevocably smashed; and there was no more to be had, no, no more anywhere, except on the other side of a wall thirty thousand feet high.