Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Ruby Brooch Chapter Six

THE SUN SAT low in the western sky by the time Sarah pulled the buckboard into camp with the wide-eyed von Barrett children singing the song they wrote to the tune of Yankee Doodle.

Little boys and little girls from wagons never jump.
We turn around and climb to ground to safety on our rump.

Caution always on our mind so carefully we leap,
and stay away from rocks and caves where creatures go to sleep.

We wash our hands and eat our food that we prepare and cook,
and stay in sight of ma and pa for us they never have to look.

We pick up twigs out in the sun and never fire a big bad gun,
and stay on watch all through the day until the evening’s done.

When dark announces time for bed, we gladly go along,
for rest is what we need tonight to get to Oregon.

Kit couldn’t help but feel that beneath each line a disaster waited to happen. Could she keep the Barretts from becoming victims? Could she even keep herself safe?

After unloading Sarah and the children at their campsite, Kit drove the buckboard to hers to unhitch the team. The men had already pulled the wagons into a circle then fastened them together with ox chains creating a corral to protect the animals. Tents and campfires would ring the corral.

“I’ll take care of Stormy and the mules,” Adam said.

She handed over the reins. “Then I’ll go wash up and help your ma.”

“I reckon she’s got the biscuits cooking, but let her know her boys’ got tapeworms hollerin’ for fodder.”

That was a new one. She had started a list of his colloquialisms, but didn’t think a thousand miles would give her enough time to figure them all out. He was right though. By the time she washed up and returned to the Barretts, the dining tent was up and the biscuits were in the cook stove.

“What can I do?”

“Mix up another batch,” Sarah said. “We’ve got a hungry crowd tonight.”

Frances slouched over to her ma. “What can I do?”

“Why don’t you help your pa pull the chairs to the table?”

The child turned a slow circle, frowning. “I can’t find him.” 

John walked up behind her carrying a long bench. He sat it down and placed a hand on her shoulder. “There’s my helper. Are you going to stand still to Sunday or help your old pa?”

“You’re not old. Not like Mr. Peters.”

John’s face crinkled. “Mr. Peters wouldn’t appreciate hearing you say that about him.”

“He says he’s old, Pa. Why can’t I?”

John rubbed his nose to cover a smile. “It’s not polite. Now take hold of one end of this bench and help me out.”

“Where’s Mrs. MacKlenna gonna sit?” 

“She can sit on the bench between you and Elizabeth.”

“That’s Mr. Montgomery’s place if’n he’s taking supper with us.”

John patted his daughter’s head. “Believe we have room enough.” 

Sarah carried a pot over to the table. “Call the boys. Food’s ready.”

John struck the large steel triangle with a mallet, and its clang peeled out over the campsite. Three freshly washed boys and Cullen appeared as if they’d been hanging out in the wings waiting for a curtain call. The lawyer look was gone. The scruffy look was back. Kit didn’t mind the scruffy look at all.

“Sit here, Mrs. MacKlenna, Mr. Montgomery.” Frances scooted to make room.

“No wine tonight?” Cullen asked.

His whisper came so close she felt the warmth of his words on her neck. He smelled of sun and summer heat and freshly washed cotton. Although the thought of drinking made her sick at her stomach, the thought of drinking with him—

“Bless the food, John. The boys are hungry,” Sarah said.

Before he said amen, pots and pans flew across the table along with seven different conversations. Kit watched with wide-eyed fascination. Cullen chewed his food slowly, his eyes hazy with thoughts or perhaps the pleasure the food gave him, or like her, he was simply following multiple willy-nilly conversations. He didn’t have enough room for his long legs and kept bumping his thigh against hers.

When had her leg become an erogenous zone?

Adam’s eyes strayed toward something behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw two young girls saunter pass, heading toward the river. Adam’s lips curled into a puppy-love-grin. “May I be excused, Pa?”

 John pushed back from the table. “You can all be excused, but don’t forget your chores.”

Kit watched Adam run off with his brothers, completely ignoring the girls. It tickled her, thinking back to her own adolescence. She turned to the older Barretts. “You have a precious family. You must be proud of them.”  

John packed his pipe with tobacco. “We’re mighty proud, aren’t we Ma?”

“I think Adam’s got a bit of spring on his mind,” Cullen said, putting a match to his cigar.

John lit his pipe. “I noticed that a few days ago. Believe the girl’s a Baue. Her pa’s got no sit in his ass.”

Kit lifted her hands in a gesture of confusion.

“Baue can’t sit still,” Cullen interpreted. “He’s always up doing one thing or another, making a racket when folks are trying to sleep.”

“If Adam’s interested in courting their girl we should be making a call soon.” John slipped his pipe between his teeth and closed down on the stem with a click.

“She’s a pretty girl,” Sarah said.

“It’ll take more than a pretty face to keep that boy’s interest. He’s got plans,” John said. 

Sarah turned to Kit giving her a worried sigh. “Mr. Montgomery’s been talking to him about going to a university, but I don’t know where the money would come from.”

“Money will work out.” John pointed his pipe toward Kit. “The boy did fine work today. If you have problems, go to Adam directly. If he don’t do what you ask, you come to me.”

 “He’s a fine young man. I can't imagine having—”

“Pa.” Elizabeth ran toward her father with arms flapping like a baby bird unable to fly. Tate trotted at her heels.

“Pa.” Frances mimicked her sister’s scream, but instead of waving her arms she half-carried a dangling cat. Tabor’s paws pushed against her tummy trying to either hold on or make a quick escape.

Alarm spread across John’s face. “What’s got you two so riled up?”


He pulled the girls into his arms. “Nothing a’tall to be scared of. Indians around these parts are friendly.”

Elizabeth wrapped an arm around her pa’s neck. “Are you sure?”


“Have you seen Indians before, Mrs. MacKlenna?” Frances asked, nestled against her father.

Kit caught Tabor’s bottom half just as the cat slipped from the child’s hold. ”I've seen Indians, but to be correct, we should call them by either their tribal name or Native Americans.”

John tapped his teeth with his pipe. “That’s an odd name to be calling ‘em.”

Kit gulped. “That’s… ah…that’s what my father used to say.”

“No matter what you call ‘em, they're still Indians, and I hope none of ‘em tries to steal that stallion of yours.”

 “He’s a magnificent horse. Take a special mare to be bred to the likes of him.” Cullen brushed her thigh again as he stretched his legs.

She didn’t think it was intentional, but it was disconcerting, and her leg tingled. When Sarah stood and gathered up a handful of dishes, Kit snagged two pots and ran from Cullen’s errant leg, but she couldn’t run from what his touch did to her insides.

AN HOUR LATER, with the dishes scraped and scoured, and the beans put on to soak for the next day’s meal, Kit took a moment to stir some thoughts. What an exhausting day, the first of seventy-three. Could she—

“Folks will be dancing tonight at the Camerons,” Sarah said.

“I’m sorry. What’d you say?”

Sarah poured out the dirty dishwater. “Dancing at the Camerons.”

Dancing? Even if she had the energy, she didn’t have a partner. “What time?” Kit asked, trying to show some enthusiasm.

“Young folks will gather soon as the old ones start yawning.”

“Don’t think I’m up for dancing, but I’d enjoy listening to the music.”

Sarah dried her hands on her apron and gave Kit a sympathetic look. “You can mourn that man you lost, but you can’t quit living. Music fills up inside of you and spills out all cool and bubbly. Makes folks feel good. Saw that today. Saw joy on the girls’ faces. Saw joy on yours.”


“You get yourself up there to the Camerons. One of those young men will ask you to dance, and you say yes. And don’t give a thought to what your husband would say. He’s gone now, and you need to get on with your life.” 

“Are you going, or are you sending me off by myself?”

“John and I’ll be there soon enough. You run along. You’ll be welcome as family. Now, git.”

Kit wiped her hands down her skirt to smooth away the wrinkles. “Speaking of family, I hope Tate and Tabor won’t be a bother. They seem to have attached themselves to the children.”

Sarah’s laugh rolled into the small fine lines around her mouth. “I don’t see you sitting still and petting animals for hours on end. Those girls have begged their Pa for two years to get a cat or a dog. He’s never been inclined. Those critters are good for them. Teach them to care for something other than themselves.”

“Tate and Tabor are very demanding. The girls might decide they don’t want the responsibility.”

“I don’t think that will happen. Now stop dilly-dallying. Maybe Mr. Montgomery will ask you to dance. He’s the favored partner, even though all the young girls know he’s thinking of marrying a woman named Abigail when he reaches San Francisco.”

Marriage? Abigail? That didn’t fit him any better than wagon train guide. The news stung for a moment, but why should it matter to her? In a few weeks, she’d be on her way home. She had no time for complications, and no time for a Highlander.

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