Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Ruby Brooch Chapter Five

FROM THE CORNER of Cullen’s eye, he spotted the waiter’s unbalanced tray and watched as the young man fumbled with the teetering stemware. There would be no rescue for him a second time. Glasses and plates crashed to the floor and shattered into dozens of pieces. A few shards landed on their table, pinging against Mrs. MacKlenna’s glass.

“Ah,” a collective gasp erupted from the diners in the crowded room.

Cullen shook his head, feeling pity for the waiter who would lose his job. When he returned his gaze to the widow, he stiffened at the sight of fear-glazed eyes. Then he noticed a tiny scrape on her cheek, and he reached out to touch her.

“Please, get me out of here.”

Her whisper stayed his hand. He stood, knocking his chair against the wall.

“I can’t breathe.” She grabbed the table’s edge, stood, and then leaned her trembling body against him.

“We’ll get some air.” He took hold of her arm and threaded a path between the tables, escorting her toward the front of the hotel. The cooler air in the lobby seemed to revive her. The rise and fall of her breasts returned to their hypnotic rhythm, and a pink flush colored her face.

“Thank you. I’m not sure I could have walked out on my own.” Her small hand with trimmed nails fiddled with her diamond-encrusted gold wedding band.

Was she reliving her husband’s death? Regardless, she needed something to settle her. “Could I offer you a glass of sherry?”

“No, thank you.” Her tight voice held remnants of the fear he’d seen in her eyes. “I think I’ll visit Stormy before it gets dark.” She walked away from him with a slight wobble in her step.

He grabbed his hat from the rack before hurrying after her. “Allow me to escort you. You’re not steady on your feet.” He shoved open the door, and as they crossed the threshold, he took her arm once again.

“You keep coming to my rescue.” The evening air relaxed her face, allowing a semblance of a smile.

He settled the hat on his head. “Stormy must be the Thoroughbred, or else you’ve given a stowaway a new name.”

“He’s my mighty steed, oh lad o’ Callander.”

Cullen chuckled, delighting in her sense of humor and recall. “Your steed must have belonged to your husband. He’s more horse than you need. If you’re interested in selling him, I’d be happy to assist in finding a buyer.”

“I,” she said, puffing her small frame, “raised Stormy. And if you’d like to race, I’m up for the challenge.”

“My Morgan would give your Thoroughbred a good run. But I wouldn’t want to be responsible for your death if you came off your horse.”

“Ha. It would probably be you—” She poked his arm with her finger. “—coming off your horse, not me. And I wouldn’t want to be responsible for your death either.”

The imprint of her finger lasted in his mind much longer than on his arm. He studied the widow closely, puzzled by her forwardness and unconventional beauty. She appeared to be quite different from the lovely Abigail Phillips of San Francisco who would never ride a spirited mount.

The racing challenge died on the balmy breeze blowing in from the river as they strolled down the rickety sidewalk in silence. By the time they reached the end, the western sky had turned lavender with approaching dusk.

“In Scotland they call the meeting of the day with the night—”

“The gloaming,” Kit said. “Do you believe the time of two-lights is mystical?”

He lifted his eyebrow. “According to Scottish folklore encounters between the visible and invisible worlds occur then.”

“That must be why ghosts sometimes appear at twilight?” Her eyes were as dark and full of mystery as they had been when he first met her.

“And dawn,” he added. “That’s the time of day I saw the lady riding her mighty steed—”

“Excuse me, Mr. Montgomery,” Mr. Nieland, an older member of the wagon train stepped to the sidewalk and motioned Cullen to join him at the railing.

“Give me a moment.” He released Kit’s arm and joined Nieland at the edge of the walk.

“The trip’s too risky. My wife and I are going back home.”

Cullen patted the man’s shoulder and wished him well, but didn’t attempt to change his mind. Traveling to Oregon stood as a risky proposition for the young and healthy. For older folks, age added additional burdens as they crossed the trail hemmed by disease and bad water. 

Cullen reclaimed Kit’s arm. “My apologies.”

“I hope you were able to help him. He looked defeated.”

“Nieland was leaving with us in the morning, but he’s decided the risk is too great.” Cullen shot a quick glance over his shoulder at the man trudging down the sidewalk. “You might discover this is too great a risk for you, too.”

She put her thumbnail to her mouth, and his lips twitched as she tapped the tip against her teeth. “I know the road won’t be easy, but neither is waking up every day without my husband. I appreciate your concern. Really, I do. But you don’t know how capable I am.” She dropped her hand and lifted her chin. “I can take care of myself.”

He doubted she could. The only evidence he’d seen were manicured nails, with the exception of her thumb, and a flawless complexion. Those spoke of elegance and privilege, not ability. If she made it as far as Fort Laramie, he’d be surprised. “For your sake, I hope you’re as capable as you claim to be.”

Her green eyes narrowed. “I need to go, Mr. Montgomery. Good night.” 

“I’ll walk you—” 

“That’s not necessary.” She hurried away, dodging freight wagons careening through the street.

“Mrs. MacKlenna.” She either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore him, most likely the latter. Did the widow not have a lick of sense? Couldn’t she see the streets were dangerous and no place for a woman alone? He shuddered. If her behavior was indicative of how she’d act on the trail, he’d have his hands full keeping her safe from the elements and from herself.

The back of his neck prickled as if often did when the jury entered the courtroom to deliver his clients’ verdicts; especially the clients he knew were lying. He began to whistle Bach’s Toccato and Fugue. The dark, eerie melody seemed appropriate for following the mule-headed female.

THE SUN HAD had just crested the horizon when Kit crossed the hotel’s threshold and stepped out onto the sidewalk, carpetbag in hand. Her head hurt and greasy eggs weren’t sitting well in her stomach. Either her equilibrium was messed up from zapping backwards a hundred-sixty-plus years or the half bottle of champagne she’d consumed had made her sick. Did her drinking partner feel as bad? Probably not. Almost twice her size, he could handle a full bottle of wine.

Cullen’s questions had lulled her into his confidence. She couldn’t allow that to happen again. She cringed at the thought of the ramifications if he discovered where she was from.

He had followed her to the Barrett’s campsite and back to the hotel. His covert pursuit had irritated her, but on reflection, she knew concern had motivated him. In hindsight, she should have said something. But what? That she had a brown belt in karate and could beat the crap out of anyone who threatened her? That wouldn’t be smart. She needed him, but didn’t need him to hover. He was an intelligent man and could easily become suspicious.

“Mrs. MacKlenna.” Adam took the hotel steps two at a time. He slid to a winded stop in front of her, his broad hat hanging about his ears. “Pa sent me to fetch you. He feared you might not find your way back. I didn’t tell him you checked on your horse last night ‘cause he’d be madder than a bobcat with his tail tied in a knot. You don’t argue with Pa.”

“Thanks for the warning, but I don’t think we’ll argue. Do you?”

“No ma’am. Like I said, you don’t argue with Pa.” He smoothed down his unrepentant cowlick and then grabbed her carpetbag’s handle. “I’ll carry this for you. If I hadn’t been late, we wouldn’t have to rush. But once I start reading Mr. Montgomery’s books time goes by faster than potatoes at suppertime.”

Her eyes gazed up and down the street, taking in the stevedores and soldiers from Fort Leavenworth and whooping riders galloping their ponies through the mud. “What were you reading?”

“The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.”

A dress shop window at the end of the sidewalk drew Kit’s attention, and she only half-heartedly listened to Adam’s response. The similarities between the shop and her father’s drawing were unmistakable. How could she have missed the building the night before? She dropped Adam’s arm and made her way through a group of cigar-smoking men arguing over the fastest, safest trail to Oregon. She felt tempted to tell them what they wanted to know, but kept walking. Life had to happen without her interference.

She reached the dress shop, placed her palms on the cool glass, and peered inside. Had her mother worked in this store? How far away would her father have been to see her inside the shop? She turned, searching for his vantage point. Independence Square was diagonally across the street with benches nestled among the trees. He could have watched from there. Her father wasn’t sitting there now, but Cullen was. Hat tipped back, one leg crossed over the other, and a newspaper spread open in his lap. His eyes weren’t on the paper. They were on her, gazing this way and that as if she were a painting on display.

Adam tugged on her arm. “Ma’am, we need to hurry.”

“What? I’m sorry. What’d you say?”

“We need to hurry. Pa’s waitin’ on us.” He hooked her elbow, and they headed toward the Barretts’ camp, but her gaze remained fixed on Cullen. He was visible now only in profile as he talked with a man who had approached him. Does he ever have a moment’s peace?

With her eyes still on Cullen, she said, “Tell me again what you were reading.”

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.” Adam must have sensed a receptive audience of one. He proceeded to recite the part of Bassanio extolling Portia’s virtues to Antonio. Kit pushed thoughts of Cullen and her parents to the back of her mind and gave the young thespian her attention, enjoying his enthusiasm.

By the time they reached camp, her stomach had settled, and her headache had subsided to only a mild throb. Then she saw John glaring at his pocket watch. She apologized for being late, told him it wouldn’t happen again. Then she followed Adam’s lead and ducked out of the way.

Frances found Kit while she was grooming Stormy. The child stepped under the horse’s nose. “Be careful, Frances.”

“I’m always careful. He’s a big horse, isn’t he? Can you ride him? Do you fall off? Are you ‘fraid you’ll get hurt? Do you—”

“Whoa, young lady. Give me a shot at the first question before moving on to the rest.”

Frances crossed her arms and remained planted as if Stormy were only a statue. “Ma said your horse is dangerous. I’m supposed to stay away from him. You’re not scared, and you’re not much bigger than me.”

Kit gave the child’s bonnet strings a little tug. “But I’m a lot older.”

“I’m eight. How old are you?”

No one needed to know Kit’s age. By their standard she qualified as an old maid. What would Cullen think if he knew she was twenty-five? And why did his opinion matter? “Stormy is five. He’d just been born when I saw him the first time. Not much taller than you are now.”

“Did he walk?”

“On shaky legs.” Stormy’s birth was a slippery issue, and she didn’t want to talk about it. “I’ll ask your mom and dad if you can ride with me sometime.”

With the innocent face of an acolyte, Frances asked. “Do you mean my ma and pa?”

Kit snapped her fingers like a magician pulling surprises out of the air. “That’s exactly what I meant.” Pretending to be a nineteenth-century widow wasn’t going to be easy with a precocious child posing questions faster than Tabor could skedaddle from a room. “I’m going for a ride this morning, but this afternoon we can read, if you’d like.”

“Can Elizabeth read too?”

“Sure.” Kit hoped Frances’s reading was better than her writing.

With a bubble of excitement, Frances ran off with Tabor pouncing on her heels. The cat needed more attention than Kit had given him. Maybe he would be over his depression by the time they returned home. Maybe she’d feel better too.

She finished grooming Stormy, slipped on a pair of wool trousers under her dress so she could ride astride, and then helped Sarah prepare picnic baskets with the family’s lunch. When all was ready, Elizabeth and Frances, along with Tate and Tabor, climbed in the back of the buckboard.

“We’re ready, Ma,” Elizabeth said.

Sarah glanced at Kit. “You ready?”

“I’m going to take Stormy and ride ahead. I’ll meet you in a couple of hours.” Sarah wore disapproval in the tight set of her jaw, but before she could voice it, Kit escaped again.

NOT FAR FROM town, Kit found a bluff overlooking the trail. A breeze rustled the underbrush along the switchback she followed to the top. A twig snapped. A tree fluttered its budding branches. A bird sang. Nature’s quiet symphony.

Turn down the volume on the silence.

If that wasn’t a song, it should be. At least it wasn’t the eerie silence she’d heard the night Scott died in her arms. No other sound in all of creation compared to the last whisper of breath. A shiver rolled up the length of her body. She shifted in the saddle. If she fell into an emotional quagmire on her first full day living in 1852, she might as well quit and go home because she’d be of no use to anyone.

She stiffened her spine and focused on the scene unfolding below her.

The wagons' white bonnets shimmered in the morning sun, and the wind, blowing across the long grass, created an illusion of schooners sailing over the ocean. The view made her drawing fingers itch. She grabbed her pencils and journal from the saddlebag and within moments became lost in her work.

“If a man’s dream could be painted, you’re looking at a masterpiece.” 

Adrenalin exploded in her body. The journal and pencils flew from her hands. She jerked around to find Cullen reining his horse alongside her. “Damn, you scared me.” 

His expression changed from surprise to smoky in a single heartbeat. “You shouldn’t be up here by yourself.” He dismounted, slow and easy. “It’s not safe.” He picked up the journal and pencils and glanced quickly at the drawing before handing her the notebook.

“I appreciate your concern, but—”

“—You can take care of yourself.”


He withdrew a cheroot from his pocket and put a match to the cigar. “Out here we need each other. Where we’re going, we’ll need each other more.”

A flock of honking geese, flying in V formation, pulled their gazes toward the sky.

Cullen puffed, and wisps of smoke formed a halo around his head. “There’re lessons to learn from geese.”

“What? Fly high enough not to get shot?”

The corner of his lip twitched. “That’s one.”

They remained silent for a moment or two, then he said, “The flock works as a team. If a bird falls out of formation, he soon realizes he can’t fly by himself and gets back in line. If one gets sick and drops from the flock, two others fly with him to the ground and wait until he gets better or dies.”

She cocked her head, giving him a sideways glance. “Is that true?”

“The birds share a common goal, Mrs. MacKlenna, a common direction. And they’ll get where they’re going quicker than one bird could get there on its own.”

“I sense you’re not just talking about birds.”

He returned her gaze. The look in his dark blue eyes grew intense. Her heart beat faster than normal. The pencil in her shaking hand tapped lightly on the page. “What’d you say about dreams? If a man’s dreams could be painted…”

“You’re looking at a masterpiece.”

She wrote the word dream, then drew a faceless woman. “All those folks on the wagon train are filled with dreams, aren’t they?”

“Just like you and me.”

“I wonder how many will give up on theirs.”

He took a long, slow pull and blew out the smoke. “We’ve got close to a hundred strong-willed folks traveling with us. If they stay healthy, most will make it to Oregon. But some of their dreams will be shattered along the way.” He rolled the cigar between his fingers. “Don’t let one of them be yours.”

THE VAST EXPANSE of the landscape stretched out before Kit in rolling swells. A carpet of bluestem grass peeked through the prairie thatch. The occasional turkey buzzard gliding through the air broke up the repetitiveness of the plains. From the eye of an artist, beauty abounded

The wagon train’s destination for the day, the Blue River, lay only twelve miles from their starting point. They had to do better than that if she was going to reach South Pass in time.

When they stopped for the nooning, she unsaddled Stormy to let him graze. She had promised Frances they would read, and she didn’t want to disappoint her.

As Kit and Sarah repacked the buckboard with kids and lunch supplies, Kit watched a little boy jump from his family’s wagon. “That’s so dangerous.” Out on the trail, mistakes and stupidity killed people. “Have there been any accidents you know of?”

“Every day fingers or toes go missing,” Sarah said. “Folks are careless. John’s on the boys all the time to pay attention, but they’re children. Tend to get distracted. Why?”

“Guess I’ve seen too much bad stuff.”

Sarah let out a hefty sigh. “The girls are my biggest worry. They’re still innocent. Don’t know about death and dying. I’ve tried talking to them, but—”

“Hold on a minute. I have an idea. I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t go riding off now. It’s time to leave,” Sarah said.

 Kit rushed back to her wagon and rearranged boxes until she found her guitar. A few minutes later, she put the case in the buckboard.

Frances’s eyes lit with anticipation. “Can you play the guitar?”

“I thought we might sing this afternoon," Kit said. “Would you like that?”

Frances rubbed her small hands along the black guitar case. “Yes, ma’am. What songs do you know?”

Kit did a quick rat-a-tat-tat on the case with her fingers. Then with a final tap on an imaginary ride cymbal, she said, “I thought we might write our own.”

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