WITHOUT A WATCH, Kit relied on her stomach to tell the hour. Telling time based on the position of the sun was like finding her way around a Super Walmart without aisle signs. Tate abandoned her for some canine pursuit that probably involved food while she stayed put at the riverbank to watch people, one tall person in particular. After Cullen’s heartfelt confession, she understood his over-protectiveness. She couldn’t make any guarantees, but she’d try to be more tolerant.
Unable to shake loose of the images of a frightened Scottish lad frantically ripping out roots to save his entangled sister, Kit opened her journal and fell into another drawing frenzy. She drew a grown-up, rain-soaked, and bleeding Cullen stuck in thick twining vines, hacking at tendrils with the ragged edge of a sheared-off piece of plank fence.
“Mrs. MacKlenna.” Adam’s voice calling from over her shoulder barely provoked a ripple in her artistic trance. The pencil swept across the page.
“Mrs. MacKlenna?” He touched her shoulder with an impersonal tap. “Mrs. MacKlenna.” He tapped again and finally broke through the spell.
She set down her pencils and curled and uncurled her drawing hand, releasing the tension. “Are we next?” Her voice sounded disconnected as if it hadn't yet caught up with her body.
“Yes ma’am. I thought you might want to stow supplies. They’ll get jostled when we hoist the wagon down the slope.”
“Have I told you lately how much I appreciate your help?”
He blushed. “No ma’am, but you don’t have to tell me nothin’. I’m just doing my job.”
“You do much more than I hired you to do. Look for a bonus when we get to Fort Laramie.”
He straightened, squaring his shoulders. “Yes ma’am.”
Kit closed her journal and gathered her pencils. Then, after disentangling from yards of fabric, she dug her boots into the sandy soil and pulled herself to her feet without tripping over her dress hem.
The wagon had nothing that need stowing away. Her minimalist lifestyle created a clutter-free environment, the complete opposite of home with books stacked floor to ceiling, a collection of guitars, paper airplanes, and stacks of dirty clothes. Little black dresses and business suits hung in a walk-in closet she rarely visited.
If her wagon crashed into the water, the airtight trunk holding the money and paramedic supplies she pilfered from the farm clinic would float. If she tumbled into the water wearing boots and a heavy dress, she wouldn’t.
She changed into a lightweight skirt over a pair of trousers, then switched from boots to moccasins. If she went into the water, she could ditch the skirt and slippers.
Within a few minutes, she returned to her spot on the riverbank and watched the Springers drive their wagon onto the ferry. The family climbed down and stood alongside the rig as two strong men on the gunwales thrust long poles against the river’s bottom. The ferry slowly left the dock. When it was about twenty-five feet from the bank, a rope attached to the opposite shore broke loose.
“Watch out.” Men yelled from bothsides of the river.
“Straighten it out. Come on, you can do it." Kit was too far away to be heard by anyone close enough to help.
The two polemen frantically thrust their poles into the water, but the ferry jerked in the current. The motion sent the wagon rolling forward, forcing the right front wheel off the edge. The unbalanced boat shifted with a violent jolt and knocked the passengers to the deck. A small child rolled into the water.
Mrs. Springer screamed, “Somebody get my boy.”
“Throw me a rope.” Mr. Springer tied one end of a rope around his waist. The other end was tied to the ferry’s support posts. He dove ibeneath the surface, popped up, looked around, and then dove again. Although men lined both banks, they were unable to do anything other than desperately knit their fingers and watch with wide-eyed terror.
“Get my boy.” The mother ran along the length of the ferry, waving her arms high over her head, screaming in a pitiful, high-pitched wail.
A small arm reached above the surface, Kit marked the spot in her mind as she kicked off her moccasins and dropped her skirt. Snippets from rescue training flashed through her head.
Rescue rule number one—never jeopardize yourself.
Rescue rule number two—never attempt anything you haven’t done before.
She plunged into the frigid river, ignoring both. Hypothermia would come quickly. Long, determined strokes moved her against the current. When she reached the spot below where she had last seen the child, she stopped, and treaded water. He broke through the surface to the left, sputtering. Tiny fingers clawed the air, trying to climb an invisible ladder to safety. Then the current dragged him under again.
Kit dove. Where is he? She shot back to the surface. There. A red plaid shirt. With a big gulp of breath, she dove again and snatched at a shadow in the murky water. Her fingers hooked a shirt. She drew the child under her arm and kicked to the surface with the current swirling around them. Without fins, her legs already ached. One strained arm wrapped under the boy’s chin, and with the other, she angled toward shore, not more than fifteen yards. An unfamiliar sense of panic threatened her, but she could make it, couldn't she? Two lives were at stake.
“Kit, catch the rope,” Cullen yelled.
The lasso spiraled above the water’s surface and landed inches from her outstretched arm. She grabbed it and rolled onto her back, so he could pull her against the current. The hemp cut into her palms. As soon as her feet touched ground, he ran into the water and snatched the child.
“We don’t have much time.” Her teeth chattered around words caught in a rush of deep, heaving breaths.
He placed the boy on dry ground and touched his neck. Cullen shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do.”
“Get out of my way.” She dropped to her knees and tilted the boy’s head. The child was a frightening shade of blue. She covered his mouth with her own and blew her breath into him. Then she placed the heel of her hand in the center of his breastbone and compressed over and over, counting. “Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty.”
A chorus of murmurs rippled through the crowd, surrounding Kit in a claustrophobic circle. “One, two, three, step back, four, five, give me room, six, seven…” She gave the child two more deep breaths then resumed compression.
Cullen’s strong hand grabbed her upper arm and squeezed. “Stop.”
She jerked free.
Mrs. Springer fell to her knees beside Kit, wringing her apron in her red-weathered hands. With calm desperation, Kit repeated the cycle of breaths and chest compressions for a third time. “Come on, you can do it. Don’t give up on me now.”
The boy’s eye twitched. Did she imagine the slight movement? She put her head to his chest. Nothing. “Come on, come on.” More compressions. “Don’t quit on me.” His long black lashes fluttered. That wasn’t her imagination. Relief spiked through her veins. She pressed fingertips against the pulse point in his neck. Thready.
Mr. Springer stood over his boy, running his hands through his thinning hair. Cold river water poured off his clothes and puddled at his feet. His teeth chattered behind purple lips. Gray eyes appeared clouded with disbelief.
Mrs. Springer’s hair had fallen loose of the tight knot normally worn at her nape and formed a frizzy hallo around her head.
Kit shook the woman’s arm to gain her attention. “Help me get him out of these wet clothes.” Several other women appeared offering blankets. “Wrap him up, rub him. Don’t stop until his color returns.”
Mrs. Springer’s hopeless wailing turned into sobs. “Will he be all right?”
Kit wasn’t one hundred percent sure the child would survive. “We’ll need to watch him for the next twenty-four hours. But right now he needs to get warm—quickly.”
Cullen pulled her to her feet. “You need to get warm.”
Adam shoved a handful of blankets toward her. “Ma sent these for you. Can you teach me to swim like that?”
Cullen brushed Adam aside. “Not now.” Kit grabbed a blanket and pulled away from Cullen, but her frozen feet offered no support, and she collapsed. Cullen caught her before she hit the ground, then picked her up, and cradled her in his arms.
Her teeth chattered, sounding like castanets on steroids. “Cover my head.”
“Adam, get your ma. Bring her to Kit’s wagon. She’ll need help.”
“I don’t need help.”
The veins in Cullen’s neck pulsed. “You think you don’t need anyone. But you’re wrong. Without help, you’d have drowned. What the hell were you thinking?” He rumbled, sounding like a volcano on the verge of erupting. Steam rose off him.
“That I could save him.” Craving his heat, she nestled into his chest. Every kettledrum beat of his heart resonated against her cheek. She didn’t want to be near the explosion set to detonate. “Put me down. I can walk.”
“You can’t even stand. How the hell can you walk?”
“You’re cursing at me.”
“You’re damn right. And you’ll hear more before this is over.”
She ignored the muscle ticking in his jaw.
He carried her to her wagon where he dropped her on its tailgate with enough force to sting her shivering butt. If a spanking had been his intention, he succeeded. White-hot anger burned off the chill.
He wrapped a death grip around the tailgate’s edge. “Get out of your wet clothes, and do not step outside this wagon. I want to know where you are every minute. Do you understand?” The staccato voice punctuated his demand. “Heed my words, or I’ll damn well put you on the first wagon heading east.” He pushed away, leaving her with a parting glare.
Sarah arrived, carrying Kit’s skirt, moccasins, drawing paper, and pencils. “Let’s get into dry clothes before you catch cold. Come on now. Stand up, and we’ll go change.”
“I can manage.”
“Of course you can, but I’m going to help anyway.”
Although colder than she’d ever been in her life, Kit moved rapidly and focused on what needed doing. She removed one of the blankets. “If you’ll hold this, I’ll stand behind it and take off my clothes.”
“Not the time for modesty, dear,” Sarah said.
Working with the men at the fire station and long weekend survival treks had bred modesty right out of Kit, but she sure couldn’t explain her thong or sports bra to Sarah. And, God only knew what she’d think of the butterfly tattoo.
A few minutes later, dried and dressed, her heart rose and fell in its complex rhythm, reminding her how close she’d come to drowning.
“What you did was the most selfless act I’ve ever witnessed,” Sarah said. “You shamed a few men who stood by kicking the dirt. My John was one of them.” She enveloped Kit in a warm hug. “I’m proud of you. Folks will be speaking about this for a long time.”
Kit had known Sarah only a few days, but she had discovered from long conversations riding in the buckboard that the woman could go from parochial to profound in very few words. She had more to say and it wouldn’t be complimentary. Even-tempered Sarah was definitely nettled.
“However, you didn’t come on this trip to get yourself killed. If you ever do anything like that again, John will send you packing with the next go-backers we see.”
Kit felt a consuming embarrassment. “I won’t scare you again.”
Sarah grinned. “Of course you will. Impulsiveness is in your nature. I’ve told you what John wanted me to say. Cullen said you’re not to leave the wagon. You won’t, will you?”
Kit groaned softly, letting her shoulders sag. “I’ll be right here until he releases me.”
Sarah chucked on her way out. “You’d best get one of those Shakespeare books. You might be here for a while.”
Kit leaned back on her bed. The last couple of hours had been strange. But she sensed that would be the way of things for the next several weeks. In the meantime, she could read Shakespeare or study class notes from the crime scene seminar she’d taken in college. A sketch formed in her mind. She grabbed her journal and her hand blitzed across the page.
The drawing depicted a woman in a jail cell with her hands gripping the bars, watching a man on the other side dangle an oversized key. Vines crept up his legs, anchoring him to the ground. The drawing was chilling.
She tossed the journal aside and stared out through the wagon’s rear opening. An assemblage of men and women hustled around camp like worker bees. The scene resembled dozens of reenactments in which Kit had participated, but something was starkly different. Absent, was the jovial camaraderie common among re-enactors.
Her journey to South Pass was definitely not a reenactment.
The trip held the fragility of life and the specter of death, and the hemp rope burns across her palms spoke to that unending reality.