A HORN BLASTED, pulling Kit from the fog of sleep. Where was she? Heavy weights pressed against her making movement impossible. Her scratchy eyes refused to open, but her nose was fully alert to the smell of frying bacon and burnt coffee. Slowly, her wayward cognition returned, but too late to give her more than half a second to cover her ears with her pillow before the second blast of Henry’s horn invaded camp with a sound as terrifying as a screeching herd of horses. Three times every morning, he blew the damn horn. He was either deaf or a sadist. The only way to stop the racket was to either shoot Henry or steal the bugle. Both options were under consideration.
Tate stood and stretched, and then without bothering to bark good morning, jumped out of the wagon. Tabor stuck around for hugs. She pulled him to her and buried her face in his fur. “At least one of you still appreciates me.”
During the three days they’d been on the trail, the animals stayed with the children most of the time, but during the night, they always found Kit’s bed. She wanted to believe they came to protect her, but she knew her bed was probably the most comfortable place they’d found to sleep.
She rubbed Tabor’s neck. “Let’s get up. Sarah’s waiting.” The cat just stared at her, purring, and she hugged him again. She was sleeping well. Something she hadn’t done since the crash, and she resented waking up, especially to Henry’s noise pollution.
She grabbed a Therowox pre-moistened cloth from her trunk, and began her first of two full-body baths of the day. The lack of sanitation and bathing topped the long list of concerns she had about traveling to the past and the cloths were the next best thing to a hot shower. Actually, she realized, a hot shower had no next best thing.
Outside her wagon, camp quickly filled with the sounds of clanking pans, whispers, and footfalls of the men and boys heading off to the woods for their morning constitutions. Well, at least she and Sarah had solved their sanitation concern by insisting the men erect a latrine tent for the women. During the day, nature’s call occurred al fresco behind billowing skirts, but at least at night and in the early morning, they had privacy.
She finished bathing, dressed, and climbed down from the wagon. The sun was barely up, throwing long shadows on the ground. She headed in the direction of the Barretts’ wagon located on the other side of the circle. Sarah would already be at the cook stove frying bacon.
When she reached the Barrett campfire, Sarah was dropping more bacon onto the skillet. Sizzling fat popped and splattered. “What can I do?” Kit asked.
“We need more biscuits.”
The Barretts ate more carbs than any family Kit had ever met.
Sarah poured two cups of coffee, then handed one to Kit. “How’d you sleep?”
Kit covered a yawn. “Well enough, I guess.”
Sarah glanced over the rim of her cup. “A wagon’s heading this way. Henry and John are walking out to the meet the driver.”
Kit watched as a crowd gathered around the wagon.
Sarah pulled the skillet off the burner. “Let go see what’s happening.”
“…it’s spilled over the bank,” the man was saying when the ladies walked up.
“Did you see it?" Henry asked.
The man shook his head. “A rider just rode up to our camp. He seen the river. Says it’s bad. I didn’t sign up to kill my family. We’re going home. Good luck to you.” The man snapped his whip over the heads of his team and the wagon rolled away.
“Go-backer—giving up at the first sign of trouble,” John said.
Henry scratched his chin. “Cullen left out a couple hours ago to check out the river. He’ll be back this evening to tell us what’s he’s seen. Just ‘cause we’re starved for news don’t mean we have to believe stories told third and fourth hand.”
“John and I’ve talked about those river crossings,’ Sarah said to Kit. “They scare me, but I don’t want him to know. It’ll taint his decision if one needs making. He needs to do what’s best for the family without worrying about my silly fears.”
To Kit, Sarah’s fears weren’t the least bit silly. People died crossing rivers.
John put his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “Henry said he’ll call a meeting tonight when Cullen gets back. We’ll talk about what we know not some scuttlebutt spread by a go-backer. Come on now. Day’s wasting. Let’s eat breakfast and get on the road.”
Kit saw a nervous tick around Sarah’s mouth and knew the upcoming meeting wouldn’t mollify her fear.
HENRY CALLED AN after-supper meeting. The rumors about the swollen river had floated around the wagon train all day. When Kit and Sarah arrived at the Camerons, the fire-lit torches illuminated dozens of tense-jawed faces. Calming this crew would take some powerful rhetoric.
Henry didn’t blow his bugle to get folks’ attention. He fired his pistol, which didn’t bother Tate curled at Kit’s feet, but scared Tabor right out of her arms. She knew the cat would find Frances who would comb and quiet his standing-on-ends fur.
Henry removed his hat, holding the brim with both hands, and looking like a preacher presiding over a funeral. “You folks know we’ll reach the Kansas tomorrow.” His slow and laborious voice sounded like a preacher, too. “You heard that go-backer this morning. Well, don’t let him scare you. Cullen went to the river and talked to folks. He's here now to tell it to you straight.”
Cullen stepped forward, planted his feet, and put his hands on his hips. “Crossing won’t be easy. Spring rains have swollen the river and water’s pouring over the bank. The current’s stronger than usual. That makes it dangerous.” He paused, but Kit sensed it wasn’t for effect. His deep, controlled breathing, along with an intense look in his eyes, told her he was softening up his listeners, but not in a manipulative way.
“What you haven’t heard is Pappan’s Ferry broke down this morning.” There was a collective gasp. He gave the crowd a moment before holding up his hand demanding attention. “If the ferry’s not operating by the time we arrive, we’ll have to float the wagons.”
A heavyset man standing a few feet from Cullen shouted, “You know what that means? Some of us will get drowned for sure—or lose our wagons.” His tone raised a black cloud of uneasiness, and murmuring among the crowd increased.
“Folks have been crossing the Kansas for years.” Cullen grew quiet and looked around the circle of men, making eye contact with each one. Then he said, “If we stay determined and work together, we’ll get across this water, across the mountains, and we’ll make it to the Willamette Valley.”
His words instilled a heightened sense of urgency. In the dim torch light, Kit wondered if she were willing to risk her life and her animals. But wasn’t that what she already agreed to do? The entire trip was a risk, not just this river crossing.
“We can layover a few days,” Cullen continued, “wait for the water level to drop or the ferry to get up and running, or we can float the wagons. Keep in mind, every day we delay is one day later we get to the mountains. If we run into snow, the weather could kill us like the Donner party.”
The river crossing debate went on and tempers flared. Cullen listened to arguments and concerns until finally he said, “When the time comes, you men will make the right decisions for your families. I can’t decide for you. I can advise you, but the decisions are yours alone.”
The crowd disbursed, and Cullen and Henry joined the Barretts and Kit for coffee. John passed a plate of chewy molasses cookies. “What do you think we should do, Cullen?”
He chewed a cookie, rested his elbows on his knees, and leaned forward. “If the ferry’s not running, I think we should float across.”
John squeezed Sarah’s hand. His face held no smile. “We’ll do what you decide is best.”
Later, as the Barrett family sought their beds, Cullen asked Kit if he could walk her to her wagon.
“That’s not necessary. I promise not to wander far.” She glanced up into the night sky where thready clouds darted across the full moon’s face. “Meet me by moonlight—”
“Alone, and then I will tell you a tale.” He sang the ballad’s first line with a lusty tenor voice that made her tingle.
“Your taste in music is as varied as mine.” She nodded toward her wagon. “Come on.”
He fell in step beside her. “No dancing tonight? Your suitors will sorely miss you.”
She gave him a teasing one-knuckle punch in the arm. “Haven’t you noticed? I’m Ben and Clint’s shill. They dance with me, so they can ogle the other girls.” She laughed, thinking of their sweaty palms. Then she remembered dancing with Cullen and the warmth of his hand pressed against her back. She breathed deeply, hoping fresh air would cool the heat building inside her. She retreated to safer thoughts—teenage boys and sweaty palms. “Soon enough they’ll get up the courage to ask their secret sweethearts to dance, and I’ll be left without a partner.”
He removed his dusty, black fedora, swept his fingers through his hair, then put his hat back on. “Several wagon trains are already camped at the river. I’m sure we can find you a dance partner, one without sweaty palms.”
Was he reading her mind or recalling his own teenage years? Cullen as a gangly young man with raging hormones wasn’t easy to imagine. She searched his face. Something weighed heavy on his mind, and she’d bet a pouch of coins it had nothing to do with dancing. “The crossing will be difficult, won’t it?”
Beneath his black hat sitting low on his forehead, shadows covered his face. “I watched several wagons float across. Men stood at the shore, scratching their arms, hoping to scrape away their fear. Men on this train can take hard work, but the thought of putting their families in danger will cause them to question how much risk they’re willing to take.”
He tilted his head. With his face no longer shadowed, the stern set of his jaw told her what she needed to know. He was afraid, but not for himself.
“How much risk are you willing to take?” he asked.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to get to Oregon.” She said Oregon without stumbling over the word but felt guilty for lying. “If I have to dismantle my wagon and float it across, I will.”
She held up a hand, interrupting him. “I appreciate your concern. If I need your help, I’ll ask.”
Several moments of silence hung between them.
“Well, good night then.” Cullen tipped his hat and walked away maybe ten paces then turned back to face her. “I’d like to dance with you one last time when we reach Oregon City. I can’t do that if something happens to you. Be careful out there.”
She gave him a wistful smile. “You’ve got a date.”
He walked off into the night, whistling.
Tabor rubbed against her leg. She picked him up, and he nuzzled her with his wet nose.
“We’re not going to Oregon City, Tabor. And I’ve already had a last dance.”