ANOTHER WEEK DRAGGED by as the wagon train traveled through Nebraska’s dry and sandy grassland dunes. The ever-present dust tagged along as an annoying companion that made Kit itch and scratch. But Cullen’s parting words played a continuous off-key loop in her head. To her, listening to anything off-key was a form of mind torture.
Homer’s Odyssey had been required reading in high school English. What she remembered of the story and what she gathered from Cullen’s words, he thought she was tempting him. Hogwash. The last thing she wanted was a relationship with a womanizing, egotistical, overbearing jerk from the nineteenth century.
Fortunately, he was rarely in camp, and when he was, he kept his distance. In weak moments, she wanted to explain why she had lied about being a widow. But an explanation would lead to more questions she couldn’t answer truthfully. No point in giving him an opportunity to catch her in more lies. Besides, Homer exhausted her knowledge of Greek literature, and her repertoire of Shakespeare was sketchy at best. She wouldn’t be able to interpret his outbursts.
Even though Cullen occasionally acted like a jerk, she missed him. She missed his stories, his humming, and most of all his laughter. Other men laughed. So why did his laugh speak to her soul?
Because it harmonized with her own.
To avoid the dust, she and Stormy rode ahead of the wagon train. Soon, she could no longer hear the shouts of the men driving their oxen. She’d ridden too far ahead and needed to turn around. But as she started back, she noticed the sky, not because it was paint worthy, just the opposite. Mushroom-shaped, green-tinted clouds canopied the prairie.
“Hail.” Fear crawled through her belly.
The children were with Sarah and safe from the approaching storm, but what about the animals. Tate and Tabor were with the girls. Hail would be tough on the oxen, but they’d survive. Out in the open, Stormy might not.
Up ahead there appeared to be an outcropping where she and her horse might be able to wait out the storm, but first she had to let Adam know where she was going. She raced back, waving for him to stop. “I need to get a bag out of the wagon.”
“Those clouds don’t look good, Miss Kit. You think Henry will circle up?”
“Probably. Secure the wagon and settle in. I’m going on ahead to find cover for Stormy. I’ll be back as soon as the storm passes.”
Kit pointed toward a ridge in the distance.
“You won’t make it before the storm hits. Let me tell Pa where we’re going, and I’ll go with you.”
“I can make better time by myself.”
“Adam, I have to go.” She filled a small sack with oats and grabbed her backpack with emergency supplies.
“How can I explain to Mr. Montgomery that I let you go?”
Normally, she carried guilt around like a well-traveled makeup bag, but she refused to worry about what Cullen would think or do. “He’ll probably hope I don’t come back.”
The dramatic widening of Adam’s big brown eyes told her he didn’t believe that was true. “I’ll be back before Cullen knows I’m gone. Don’t worry.”
Before Adam could raise another objection, she galloped toward the lead wagon to find Henry. He and two other men huddled together battling the wind for control of a map. “We’re in for a bad one,” he said to Kit. “We’ll circle here.” A gust of wind buffeted him. He braced himself against his horse.
The wind tugged at her hat, and Stormy danced anxious steps. She couldn’t keep up with both. She let the hat go. “I’ve got to find cover for Stormy. I’ll be back.”
“Don’t be a fool. You got cover here.”
“I do. Stormy doesn’t. This storm could kill him.” MacKlenna Farm treated its stallions like horses not pampered pets. Although they spent most days in their paddocks, they were never outside during a storm.
“Could kill you too, missy.”
“I’ve got to go.”
“Get back to your wagon, or I’ll hog tie you.”
Arguing with Henry would take time she didn’t have. She put heels to her horse and galloped off, ignoring his ultimatum to turn around.
A mile from the wagon train, she rode smack into a dark shelf of clouds, hanging close to the ground and blocking out the daylight. No cover. No protection. She’d made a horrible mistake. Fear no longer crawled in her belly. It sprinted.
A streak of lightening shot through the sky and struck a tree several yards away. Stormy screamed an almost human shriek of terror, reared, and climbed the air with his forelegs. His hooves hit the ground ready to run, but Kit yanked the reins and turned him in tight circles. Her adrenalin went haywire. Her body knew what her mind couldn’t wrap itself around. This was about survival. She and her horse could very well die.
She rushed into a gully with sloped sandstone walls. The rain shafts turned thick and white. Within moments, hail would fall from the sky. Thunder rumbled through the gully. Wind whipped around a patch of thick brush and thorny branches and revealed an opening in the side of the gully. A cave? She galloped toward it.
Reaching the spot, she grabbed a flashlight from her backpack and peered inside. The short hairs on her neck stood at attention as she flashed the light into a space half the size of a one-car garage. She saw no nests, droppings, or snakes.
“Come on, boy, I think it’s safe.”
The sandstone walls felt cool to the touch. The air held a musky, damp scent and the stale odor of burnt wood.
Stormy’s ears flattened against his head, his nostrils flared, and he stomped his feet.
“You’re okay, boy, you’re okay.” She rubbed his nose and sang a medley of Tim McGraw tunes until he cocked his rear leg and relaxed his lips. “Wish Tim’s music did the same for me.” If she could, she’d cower in the corner with her ears covered against the frightening tin-drum sound of the hail. But she forced herself to hover at the entrance and watch the baseball-size stones collide and explode in mid-air. Ice chips of fear sailed in her direction.
A long, worried sigh slipped between her lips. She’d found cover and Stormy was safe, but there would be ramifications for running off. Her prickly skin told her so. If Cullen returned to camp before she did, he might be angry enough to kick her off the wagon train. What would she do then? Stalk him? Probably. She wasn’t about to put too much distance between them. Not until June 16. Then a century and a half might not be enough.