THE WAGON TRAIN reached the Kansas River crossing in the late afternoon as the sun melted on the horizon. Kit stood beside John near the river’s edge. Her churning stomach mirrored the swirls and eddies in the muddy water that spilled over the bank. Is this an acceptable risk? Her resolve seemed to fade as fast as the daylight.
“Cullen’s lost his ever-loving mind if he thinks we can cross this river in a wagon,” Kit said.
Tension puckered John’s face. “We’re not. We’re crossing in a boat.”
She pointed a shaky finger toward the long line of prairie schooners moving into circle formation. “Those are wagons, not boats. Removing running gear and caulking seams aren’t going to turn pigs’ ears into silk purses.”
His eyes darted up and down the bank. “Now’s not the time for doubts.”
“Doubts are spreading faster than a California wildfire. Cullen’s a lawyer for Pete’s sake. What does he know?”
“More than you. More than me. We already agreed on what to do.” John shifted nervously, kicking at the stiff-bristled brush growing alongside the river. “Here comes Sarah. Don’t go worrying her with your doubts.”
“Worry her, or worry you?” Kit’s words bounced off his thick chest and landed with a thud at her feet.
The wind skidded across the water’s surface, whipped against her skirt, and entangled her legs in yards of useless cotton. She always paid attention to signs and omens. Something made the back of her neck itch, and it wasn’t the scratchy fabric.
KIT PEERED OUT of the back of the wagon to watch the morning’s sun rise in a swirl of pink and yellow. Her first thought was not to shoot Henry for polluting the air with the God-awful sound he produced with his bugle. While she no longer worried she’d turn into a murderess, she did worry about the lies that poured out of her mouth like sour milk.
The temperature hovered in the low sixties, comfortable enough for early April if she wore a fleece jacket and gloves, but she hadn’t packed either one. So she piled on layers of clothes and looked and waddled like the Michelin Man wife’s.
Suddenly, knee-slapping, hoot-n-hollering tore through camp. “What the hell . . .” She followed the noise, stopping at the Barretts’ camp where she found Sarah putting on a pot of coffee. “What’s going on?” Kit asked.
Sarah put more fuel on the fire. “Maybe God parted the sea during the night.”
Kit refrained from rolling her eyes. “Where’s John? He’ll know what’s happening,” Kit asked.
“He went looking for Cul—”
“Sarah. Sarah.” John ran an obstacle course filled with tents and animals and children, waving his wide-brimmed hat high over his head. When he reached his wife’s side, he scooped her into his arms. “Pappan’s Ferry is back in business.”
With more enthusiasm than Sarah usually exhibited, she clapped him on the back as if he were solely responsible for the ferry’s repair. “The Good Lord answered our prayers, John.”
He kissed her, and she kissed him right back.
The heat of embarrassment spread across Kit’s face. She ducked behind the wagon, wrapped her arms around herself, and sniffed back a tear or two. Were her hot cheeks pink embarrassment or green envy? Neither. She’d watched her parents’ public displays of affection her entire life and she’d never admit to envy. Instead, she settled on relief that a crisis had been diverted.
With a quick swipe, she dried her tears and glanced around camp. Her gaze went immediately to the one person who always appeared heads above everyone else in any gathering, large or small.
Cullen stood so close to the water that it lapped his boots. One hand bracketed his hip the other rubbed the back of his neck. He appeared to be deep in thought. She watched him with a hunger she wanted to ignore, but it gnawed at her, biting off small chunks of her protective coating.
Within a minute or two, he must have come to terms with whatever was troubling him. He stepped back, brought both arms to his chest, then pulled his arm back, and threw a fist-sized rock. The stone sailed through the air at major league speed and hit a piece of driftwood floating in the river. The accuracy astounded Kit. She expected some sort of nineteenth-century equivalent to an end-zone dance or chest bump, but he didn’t celebrate. He did, however, stare in her direction. Her face flushed again, but she didn’t drop her gaze.
The resemblance to her ghost was uncanny. She half expected him to reach out his hand to her. He didn't, but he did check the time on his pocket watch. Then, before he returned the timepiece to his pocket, he rubbed the case cover with his thumb in the exacting manner she’d witnessed dozens of times.
She felt like a player in one of Shakespeare's play and hoped to hell it wasn’t a tragedy.
WITH A FEW HOURS to herself while she waited her turn to cross over on the ferry, Kit sat by the water with her journal. The memory of Cullen throwing the rock continued to play in her mind. He moved with the grace of a dancer and the power of an athlete. Keeping her eyes off him, her mind clear of him, and her fantasies free of him were damn near impossible.
Tate trotted over and laid his head on her lap, ears relaxed. She rubbed his neck. “Well, look who’s here. So you want to spend time with me now, huh? Where’s Elizabeth?” He lifted his head and looked back toward the wagon. “Surely you’re not hiding from her. Has she worn you out?” He nudged Kit’s hand with his muzzle, dog speak for, rub me again. And she did. “I need both hands to draw. If you want to sit with me, be still.”
He rolled over and went to sleep.
“Bless your dirty paws, Tate.”
During her teen years, her dad had nurtured her passion for painting. He had been a dynamic artist who painted abstract shapes with vivid shades of red, green, and yellow, while she preferred muted colors and comforting landscapes. He had encouraged her to be more expressive and passionate.
“Close your eyes, stretch, capture the world through other senses,” he had said. “Paint what you taste and smell and hear not only what you see.”
“You paint your way. I’ll paint mine,” she had told him. But she could no longer paint her way, nor could she paint landscapes in muted color tones. Not anymore. Not since the crash.
Her eyes closed, and she chewed on the end of her pencil. Stretch and capture the world through sight and sound and smell.
She opened her eyes and watched the activity on the river. On the opposite bank, an army officer and his command waited for their turn to cross. On her side, the south side, prospectors and pioneers heading west lined up their rigs and waited. What was she not seeing?
She closed her eyes again. The faces of the men flashed one by one in her mind. John, the boys, Henry, Cullen. They all held the same subtle fear. While tension reflected across their taut faces, the fear they tried to hide from themselves and each other clouded their eyes.
She looked down at her journal. In the top corner of the page, she drew an eyeball. Then she concentrated on blocking out the hype and hooey and catch-me-if-you-can laughter. Underneath the discordant surface sounds, she discovered the fragile, melodious song of a wren.
Kit sketched a bird next to the eyeball then focused on the overpowering smells in the air—coffee cooking in fire-blackened pots and bacon frying in cast iron skillets. She sniffed again for the elusive smell she knew had to be there. Breathing deeply through her nose, she caught a whiff, a faint whiff of sweet-scented verbena.
The sights, the sounds, the smells all simmered together in her mind, and then as if her graphite drawing pencil had a mind of its own, it slid across the textured paper, pulling timbre and melodic details from her imagination. Her hand glided with the fluidity of a symphony conductor’s baton.
After an hour of drawing and blending and sculpting shapes out of light and shadow, she set the pencils and erasers aside. Tears streamed down her face as she gaped at the finished drawing. Although the sketch included only shades of gray, there was a level of realism and depth she had never mastered.
From one side of the page to the other a rope bridge dangled inches above a river flaunting white-capped waves. One-half of the bridge bore frayed ropes and rotten planks. The other half had a solid wood floor and triple-knotted ropes.
In the top corner, she had reworked the non-descript bird she had originally drawn into a house wren perching on the side of a nest built into a broken limb’s crotch suspended precariously above the river.
Dying verbena covered the ground and merged into river waves. On the far bank, the verbena rose from a calm body of water and crept in full bloom up the slope.
At the bottom of the page, she’d drawn a man with a two-sided face. Horror blazed in the shadowed eye on one side, and warmth in the other. Captured in the center of both eyes were reflections of herself that she hadn’t consciously drawn. Blood drained from her face, stealing the energy that had fueled her imagination.
“Mrs. MacKlenna, are you ill?”
The sound of Cullen’s voice yanked her with the force of bungee cord recoil. She closed her journal and after a moment’s pause to gain composure, she said, “I’ve heard that the pain of losing loved ones lessens with time. But I don’t believe that, do you?” She squeezed her hands into tight fists. Her nails left half-moon prints in her palms.
He sat beside her and folded his legs Indian-style. Her pencils lay on the ground between them. He scooped them up and rolled them across his palm. As he studied the Prismacolor Turquoise Drawing Pencil imprints, a chill settled uncomfortably along her spine.
“Never seen pencils like these. Especially the one that looks like a beaver attacked it.”
She raked the pencils together like pickup sticks. No point in lying, so she didn’t say anything.
“I’d like to see your drawing, if you’ve a mind to share it.”
She rolled in the corner of her lip and held it between her teeth while she tapped her fingernails on the journal. “Maybe someday.”
“Then someday, I’ll ask again.”
They sat quietly watching people, but after a couple of minutes the silence made her fidget. She pointed toward the ferry. “Do you think it’s safe?”
Even though she wasn’t looking directly at him, she was sure his gaze never left her face.
“Best option we’ve got. If the wagon wheels are well seated in the center there shouldn’t be a problem.”
He picked up a pebble, held the stone in the crook of his finger, and tossed it side arm, low, and parallel to the water. It sank.
A soft laugh relaxed her shoulders. “Don’t you need a calm body of water to skip rocks?”
“I’ll have you know,” he said, lips twitching, “I was a rock-skipping champion when I was a lad.”
“I don’t doubt that.” A peal of laughter rolled out. When it subsided she said, “I needed that. You knew it though, didn’t’ you?”
“No ma’am, I was only skipping rocks.”
“In a turbulent body of water?”
He raised his shoulders in a what-can-I-say shrug. “Occasionally, you do things knowing your efforts might not get you what you want.”
“Why would you do that?”
He threw another stone, and it too sank. “I represented a man I knew was guilty of murder. As a lawyer, I wanted to win the case. As a law-abiding citizen, I wanted him to spend the rest of his life in jail or hang. But I did my job, and he walked away with a not-guilty verdict. Next day the victim’s family shot him dead.”
“What happened to them?”
“Law looked the other way.” He made the statement matter-of-factly, but the regret was evident in his visibly tightened lips.
“Not sure the killing made the hurting ones feel better.” He turned and captured her face again with his gaze. “Which brings us back to your original question: Does a person ever recover from grief? I’ll start out by saying no and finish with what I hope you’ll remember.”
His stoic expression gave no hint of his thoughts. He seemed to be going through a mental exercise preparing for what he was about to say. She imagined he did the same exercise before starting a trial, much as Scott had done before he performed surgery.
“The summer before I turned twelve—” He stopped, cleared his throat. “—my sister and I were swimming in a loch near our house in the Highlands. My father had tied a swinging rope to a tree. He told us to swing out and drop away from the bank because the roots could catch us. What he said made an impression on me. I can’t say the same for my risk-taking sister.
“I swung out, dropped, swam back to shore. Kristen climbed on the rope, swung out, dangling with a one-handed hold. Her hand slipped and she dropped too close to shore.” His voice broke.
Kit knew the memory had swallowed him whole.
“I waited for her to come back to the surface, but she didn’t. I yelled for my father then I dove in after her, swimming faster than I ever had, but I was too late.” The words burst out in an explosion of breath that sounded like he’d held it inside his lungs for years.
“Roots entangled her foot. I couldn’t get her loose. I tried, but I couldn’t. I swam up for air.” He gulped in a gasping breath.
Kit knew his mind swam in the dark water of the loch that had defeated a twelve-year old. She knew because she often swam in a similar kind of dark water.
“I waved to father then dove again. He reached us and sent me back up for air. I took a deep breath and swam back toward the bottom. By then he was coming up with Kristen in his arms. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes. I should have saved her, but I’d waited too long.”
Kit touched his arm and felt him shudder. She yearned to hold him, to let him know it wasn’t his fault. But she offered only words that he’d probably heard a thousand times. “You were a child. The accident wasn’t your fault.” How many times had she heard the same words spoken to her in the midst of her grief and guilt?
“Kristen was a wee lass and my responsibility. Her death was my fault.” He planted his elbows on his knees and dug his thumbs into his eye sockets. “You don’t get over that. You try to outrun the pain, but you can’t shake loose from the roots that tie you up in knots. Eventually, the hurt becomes who you are. You learn to live with it. My mother told me if we didn’t love the people we lose it wouldn’t hurt so much. I’ve learned one thing for sure in thirty years. Loving comes with risks. You make choices based on how much risk you’re willing to take.”
“Cullen.” Henry hollered from the far side of the ferry. “Need your help.”
Cullen cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Be right there.” He unfolded his legs and stood.
Kit watched his pulse beat in his neck. Hers, not surprisingly, mirrored his.
His slow smile appeared as a warning. “Always know what you’re willing to risk, lass. And, if you decide to jump, stay clear of the roots.”