“I’m not actually sure where this path is going,” Ken admitted when they emerged from an unusually dense patch of undergrowth. “It feels like we’re walking in a circle.”
“Not to mention we’re going back uphill. I knew I should have let Kaoru do the map reading,” Crawford replied. But he didn’t sound unduly concerned. They weren’t that far from civilisation. It was a beautiful sunny day (despite some ominous clouds further uphill) and they were enjoying a rare moment of solitude, as the boys had dropped behind to explore the caves they’d passed earlier.
“I can read a map,” Ken grumbled but he couldn’t really argue over Kaoru’s superior outdoor skills.
The path had levelled out in a hollow of tree roots so he turned to wait there, putting a hand up to shield his eyes as he squinted back down the trail. The caves were still visible from this vantage and the ruins of the cottage that once had been built around them stood out in picturesque relief against the distant landscape of the mountain. Although broken up by cloud, the sky was still bright blue. The only real sound was the constant chirping of crickets which had accompanied them for most of the day.
It really was a pretty place. Ken’s inner florist had been cataloguing wild flowers he’d never seen in Britain or Japan and Shige had been going mad with his camera. The boys were probably waiting for him to get a close up of an insect, again.
Ken had just turned around to say this to Crawford when the older man turned suddenly and shockingly pale and, seconds later, Keigo came charging up the path, Shige not far behind.
“What’s happened?” Ken hurried down to meet them.
“Shinji’s been bitten,” Keigo exclaimed, before bending down to catch his breath. “It was a snake.”
“In the cave,” Shige added, looking thoroughly distressed.
“I’m going back there,” Crawford said, brushing past the three of them.
Ken didn’t instantly follow. He was thinking hard. “Have you moved him?” Both boys shook their heads. “Good. Shige, go back with Brad, make sure nobody does. I’ll be right behind you. Keigo, can you get a phone signal?” Keigo was the linguist of the group and he always had at least one cellphone with him. Proving Ken’s point, Keigo retrieved an iPhone from one pocket and his Hyotei customised flip phone from the other. He held up the Gratina to confirm it had nearly three bars. “Good enough,” Ken said, “I want to you to dial 112.” He repeated the number again, slowly, then held out the map he’d been crumpling in his hand. “Try and give them our location from this. They’ll probably have a better idea than we do anyway.”
“I expect they rescue idiot tourists every weekend,” Keigo replied with a wavering smile. He’d calmed down quickly upon being given a specific task. He pointed up the path. “I might get a better signal there.”
“Call first.” Ken patted him on the shoulder. “We won’t be long.”
Ken slid his daypack from his shoulder as he jogged back down the path at a steady pace – not too quickly, the trail was rocky and uneven and he wouldn’t help anyone with a broken ankle. Shige and Kaoru were waiting outside the cave when he arrived. Ken climbed through the ruins of what might in the past have been someone’s living room to find Crawford and Kunimitsu sitting on the ground beside Shinji, just inside the cave entrance. Shinji looked pale, sweaty and terrified.
“He’s been sick,” Crawford snapped.
“That’s just stress,” Ken assured him. “Where’s the bite?”
“On my hand,” Shinji said. "I was just climbing over the wall and..."
“Okay, don’t hold it out.” Ken squatted beside him, retrieving his first aid kit from the pack. “We need to keep your arm as still as possible and make sure you’re sitting up. Keep your hand down, that’s right.”
Crawford had adjusted his position so Shinji could sit leaning against him, the boy cradling his hand gingerly in his lap.
“Keigo’s calling the ambulance,” Ken continued. “You’ll be just fine but we need to clean the bite out and put a bandage on.” He glanced across at Kunimitsu. “Did you see what type of snake it was?”
“I didn’t,” Kunimitsu admitted. “But Kaoru...”
Even Crawford snorted at this.
“I guess it was a silly question,” Ken acknowledged. “Okay. This might sting.” He lifted Shinji’s hand carefully, turning it over to see the bite marks just below the inside of the boy's wrist, and used a sterile wipe to clean the wounds as gently as possible. The two punctures looked deep and there was already some worrying discolouration around them. Ken had a strong stomach – he’d seen and inflicted much worse injuries after all – but it was different when it was one of your kids. Even a stepkid.
“Should we rinse it out?” Kunimitsu asked.
“I don’t think so,” Ken replied, folding a light bandage over the cleaned cuts. “And I’m not sucking poison out either, before anyone suggests it. It was probably a dry bite anyway,” he added for Shinji's benefit. “We could do with a splint though. Is there anything here?”
“I’ll find one,” Kunimitsu replied, clearly relieved to have something useful to do. And probably to get out of the cave.
“But what if the snake’s still out there?” Shinji asked fearfully.
“It definitely isn’t,” Shige called out from his station at the cave entrance.
“They’re usually more frightened of us than we are of them,” Crawford agreed. Although he was looking past Shige with suspiciously narrowed eyes.
Kunimitsu returned quickly, carrying two sturdy pieces of branch. Not perfect but they’d have to do. Ken used the sticks and his last bandage to wrap Shinji’s wrist in a makeshift splint, then removed his plaid shirt, ripped it along the length of the hem and used the knotted, torn off strips to make a basic sling.
“You just bought that,” Shinji protested weakly, as Ken checked that his wrist was secured comfortably.
“If Keigo complains, I’ll blame you,” was the cheerful reply.
“If you’re finished, we should leave now,” Crawford cut in.
Ken agreed. “Pass him to me, it’ll be quicker if I carry him.”
“It will not.”
“C’mon Brad,” Ken insisted.
Silence reigned in the gloom of the cavern for several long moments before Crawford, tersely, conceded.
"Keigo texted," Shige announced brightly, stepping aside when Ken emerged back into the daylight with Shinji in his arms. "He's right by the road. And, um." He pointed towards Kaoru, who had been waiting quietly outside. Kaoru was holding out a long piece of branch, at a very careful distance from himself and everyone else. The scaly black-striped body which was hooked in the fork of the branch provided its own explanation. Ken muttered a silent imprecation, which might also have been a prayer.
“Where’s the head?” Crawford asked bluntly.
Shige, grimacing, pointed towards a stained area of ground and a large rock. “It kept moving after, you know.”
“That was very DANGEROUS Kaoru,” Ken told his only begotten son. “But thank you.”
Kaoru shrugged, as non-committally as any twelve year old can while displaying his first kill. “The doctors will want to know what type it was.”
They didn’t have long to wait for the ambulance. After dialling the emergency number, Keigo had followed the path a short distance and discovered that it reconnected with the road into town on the other side of the ridge. He and Crawford continued to do the talking while Ken helped Shinji get strapped into a seat and Kaoru handed over his dead snake, with great solemnity. It was a relief to see the thing decanted securely into a sealed container although Shige made sure he got some photographs first. Crawford elected to travel with Shinji to the hospital. Ken waved them off reluctantly, glancing at his wristwatch as the vehicle disappeared down the hill.
“We can get a taxi,” Keigo said, coming to stand beside him.
“He’ll be okay.” Ken was reasonably confident about it. "He needed to be in hospital within a couple of hours so there’s plenty of time. I don’t think he’ll be feeling up to visitors for a while though.”
“Was it very poisonous?” Kunimitsu asked.
“The worst,” Kaoru replied. “It had a horn on its head.”
“He’ll still be fine,” Ken said firmly. “What matters is that he gets to the hospital for antitoxins.”
“You’re very knowledgeable about all this,” Shige chipped in, leaning forward so he could look Ken in the face. “Are snakes a big risk in flower shops these days?”
“Shut up Shige!” Wrapping his arm around the boy’s neck in a loving chokehold took the sting out of his words. Ken appreciated the attempt to change the mood. And truthfully, in that moment, he was feeling quite proud of his boys. They’d all kept their heads and acted like a team. Once Crawford got over being pissed at him and phoned from the hospital, he’d take them all out for ice cream. It would give Shinji something to complain bitterly about, at length, when he felt better.
And Ken could tell the others that he’d learned everything he knew from Kaoru’s scouting manual later. When it was all just a distant happy memory.
Ken tore his eyes from the road, and the vista of sparkling sea and haze shrouded islands beyond it, when he felt someone tugging at the hem of his vest.
“Ken.” Keigo was frowning. “Where’s your shirt?”