Bond raised a thumb. “Fourth of July. The crocs'll be sitting down to table right now. But that damned dummy! Gave me a nasty turn. Did you put her there?”

“Sure. Sorry, boy. Mr. S. told me to. Made an excuse to spike the bridge this morning. No idea your girl friend was a blonde or that you'd fall for the spiel.”

“Bloody silly of me, I suppose. Thought he'd got hold of her last night. Anyway, come on. Here's your bullet. Bite the lead. The story-books say it helps. This is going to hurt, but I must haul you under cover and out of the sun.” Bond got his hands under Leiter's armpits and, as gently as he could, dragged him to a dry patch under a big mangrove bush above swamp level. The sweat of pain poured down Leiter's face. Bond propped him up against the roots. Leiter gave a groan and his head fell back. Bond looked thoughtfully down at him. A faint was probably the best thing that could have happened. He took Leiter's gun out of his waistband and put it beside his left, and only, hand. Bond still might get into much trouble. If he did, Scaramanga would come after Felix.

Bond crept off along the line of mangroves towards the bridge. For the time being, he would have to keep more or less in the open. He prayed that, nearer the river, the swamp would yield to drier land so that he could work down towards the sea and then cut back towards the river and hope to pick up the man's tracks.

It was one o'clock and the sun was high. James Bond was tired and very thirsty, and his shoulder wound throbbed with his pulse. The wound was beginning to give him a fever. One dreams all day as well as all night, and now, as he stalked his prey, he found, quizzically, that much of his mind was taken up with visualizing the champagne buffet waiting for them all, the living and the dead, at Green Island. For the moment, he indulged himself. The buffet would be laid out under the trees, as he saw it, adjoining the terminal station, which would probably be on the same lines as Thunderbird Halt. There would be long trestle tables, spotless tablecloths, rows of glasses and plates and cutlery, and great dishes of cold lobster salad, cold meat cuts. And mounds of fruit--pineapple and such --to make the decor look Jamaican and exotic. There might be a hot dish, he thought. Something like roast stuffed sucking-pig with rice and peas--too hot for the day, decided Bond, but a feast for most of Green Island when the rich “tourists” had departed. And there would be drink! Champagne in frosted silver coolers, rum punches, Tom Collinses, whisky sours, and, of course, great beakers of iced water that would only have been poured when the train whistled its approach to the gay little station. Bond could see it all. Every detail of it under the shade of the great ficus trees. The white-gloved, uniformed coloured waiters enticing him to take more and more; beyond, the dancing waters of the harbour; in the background the hypnotic throb of the calypso band, the soft, enticing eyes of the girls. And, ruling, ordering all, the tall, fine figure of the gracious host, a thin cigar between his teeth, the wide white Stetson tilted low over his brow, offering Bond just one more goblet of iced champagne.

James Bond stumbled over a mangrove root, threw out his right hand for support from the bush, missed, tripped again, and fell heavily. He lay for a moment measuring the noise he must have made. It wouldn't have been much. The inshore wind from the sea was feathering the swamp. A hundred yards away the river added its undertone of sluggish turbulence. There were cricket and bird noises. Bond got to his knees and then to his feet. What in hell had he been thinking of? Come on, you bloody fool! There's work to be done! He shook his head to clear it. Gracious host! Goddamn it! He was on his way to kill the gracious host! Goblets of iced champagne? That'd be the day! He shook his head angrily. He took several very deep slow breaths. He knew the symptoms. This was nothing worse than acute nervous exhaustion with--he gave himself that amount of grace--a small fever added. All he had to do was to keep his mind and his eyes in focus. For God's sake, no more daydreaming! With a new, sharpened resolve he kicked the mirages out of his mind and looked to his geography.

There were perhaps a hundred yards to go to the bridge. On Bond's left, the mangroves were sparser and the black mud was dry and cracked. But there were still soft patches. Bond put up the collar of his coat to hide the white shirt. He covered another twenty yards beside the rail and then struck off left into the mangroves. He found that if he kept close to the roots of the mangroves the going wasn't too bad. At least there were no dry twigs or leaves to crack and rustle. He tried to keep as nearly as possible parallel with the river, but thick patches of bushes made him make small detours and he had to estimate his direction by the dryness of the mud and the slight rise of the land towards the riverbank. His ears weie pricked like an animal's for the smallest sound. His eyes strained into the greenery ahead. Now the mud was pitted with burrows of land crabs, and there were occasional remnants of their shells, victims of big birds or mongoose. For the first time, mosquitoes and sandflies began to attack him. Fearing the noise, he dared only to dab at them softly with his handkerchief that was soon soaked with the blood they had sucked from him and wringing with the white man's sweat that attracted them.

Bond estimated that he had penetrated two hundred yards into the swamp when he heard the single, controlled cough.

15 - Crab-meat

The cough sounded about twenty yards away, towards the river. Bond dropped to one knee, his senses questing like the antennae of an insect. He waited five minutes. When the cough was not repeated, he crept forwards on hands and knees, his gun gripped between his teeth.

In a small clearing of dried, cracked black mud, he saw the man. He stopped in his tracks, trying to calm his breathing.

Scaramanga was lying stretched out, his back supported by a clump of sprawling mangrove roots. His hat and his high stock had gone, and the whole of the right-hand side of his suit was black with blood upon which insects crawled and feasted. But the eyes in the controlled face were still very much alive. They swept the clearing at regular intervals, questing. Scaramanga's hands rested on the roots beside him. There was no sign of a gun.

Scaramanga's face suddenly pointed, like a retriever's, and the roving scrutiny held steady. Bond could not see what had caught his attention, but then a patch of the dappled shadow at the edge of the clearing moved and a large snake, beautifully diamonded in dark and pale brown, zigzagged purposefully across the black mud towards the man.

Bond watched, fascinated. He guessed it was a boa of the Epicrates family, attracted by the smell of blood. It was perhaps five feet long and quite harmless to man. Bond wondered if Scaramanga would know this. He was immediately put out of his doubt. Scaramanga's expression had not changed, but his right hand crept softly down his trouser leg, gently pulled up the cuff, and removed a thin, stiletto-style knife from the side of his short Texan boot. Then he waited, the knife held ready across his stomach, not clenched in his fist, but pointed in the flick-knife fashion. The snake paused for a moment a few yards from the man and raised its head high to give him a final inspection. The forked tongue licked out inquisitively, again and again, then, still with its head held above the ground, it moved slowly forward.

Not a muscle moved in Scaramanga's face. Only the eyes were dead-steady, watchful slits. The snake came into the shadow of his trouser leg and moved slowly up towards the glistening shirt. Suddenly the tongue of steel that lay across Scaramanga's stomach came to life and leaped. It transfixed the head of the snake exactly in the centre of the brain and pierced through it, pinning it to the ground and holding it there while the powerful body thrashed wildly, seeking a grip on the mangrove roots, on Scaramanga's arm. But immediately, when it had a grip, its convulsions released its coils which flailed off in another direction.

The death struggles diminished and finally ceased altogether. The snake lay motionless. Scaramanga was careful. He ran his hand down the full length of the snake. Only the tip of the tail lashed briefly. Scaramanga extracted the knife from the head of the snake, cut off its head with a single hard stroke, and threw it, after reflection, accurately towards a crab hole. He waited, watching, to see if a crab would come out and take it. None did. The thud of the arrival of the snake's head would have kept any crab underground for many minutes, however enticing the scent of what had made the thud.

James Bond, kneeling in the bush, watched all this, every nuance of it, with the most careful attention. Each one of Scaramanga's actions, every fleeting expression on his face, had been an index of the man's awareness of his aliveness. The whole episode of the snake was as revealing as a temperature chart or a lie detector. In Bond's judgment, Scaramanga, for all his blood-letting and internal injuries, was still very much alive. He was still a most formidable and dangerous man.

Scaramanga, his task satisfactorily completed, minutely shifted his position, and, once again, made his penetrating examination of the surrounding bush.

As Scaramanga's gaze swept by him without a flicker, Bond blessed the darkness of his suit--a black patch of shadow among so many others. In the sharp blacks and whites from the midday sun, Bond was well camouflaged.

Satisfied, Scaramanga picked up the limp body of the snake, laid it across his stomach, and carefully slit it down its underside as far as the anal vent. Then he scoured it and carefully etched the skin away from the red-veined flesh with the precise flicks and cuts of a surgeon. Every scrap of unwanted reptile he threw towards crab holes, and, with each throw, a flicker of annoyance crossed the granite face that no one would come and pick up the crumbs from the rich man's table. When the meal was ready, he once again scanned the bush, and then, very carefully, coughed and spat into his hand. He examined the results and flung his hand sideways. On the black ground, the sputum made a bright pink scrawl. The cough didn't seem to hurt him or cause him much effort. Bond guessed that his bullet had hit Scaramanga in the right chest and had missed a lung by a fraction. There was haemorrhage and Scaramanga was a hospital case, but the blood-soaked shirt was not telling the whole truth.

Satisfied with his inspection of his surroundings, Scaramanga bit into the body of the snake and was at once, like a dog with its meal, absorbed by his hunger and thirst for the blood and juices of the snake.

Bond had the impression that if he now came forward from his hiding place Scaramanga, like a dog, would bare his teeth in a furious snarl. He got quietly up from his knees, took out his gun, and, his eyes watching Scaramanga's hands, strolled out into the centre of the little clearing.

Bond was mistaken. Scaramanga did not snarl. He barely looked up from the cut-off length of snake in his two hands and, his mouth full of meat, said, “You've been a long while coming. Care to share my meal?”

“No thanks. I prefer my snake grilled with hot butter sauce. Just keep on eating. I like to see both hands occupied.”

Scaramanga sneered. He gestured at his blood-stained shirt. “Frightened of a dying man? You limeys come pretty soft.”

“The dying man handled that snake quite efficiently. Got any more weapons on you?” Scaramanga moved to undo his coat. “Steady! No quick movements. Just show your belt, armpits, pat the thighs inside and out. I'd do it myself only I don't want what the snake got. And while you're about it, just toss the knife into the trees. Toss. No throwing, if you don't mind. My trigger finger's been getting a bit edgy today. Seems to want to go about its business on its own. Wouldn't like it to take over. Yet, that is.”