Monday, April 16, 2012

The Ruby Brooch Chapter Three

WHEN KIT RETURNED to her wagon, she found Tate sitting on the bench seat doing his best imitation of a sphinx. Sitting next to him doing his best imitation of a junior sphinx was Tabor. “You came, too?” Although the dynamic duo’s charm was disarming, she sagged all the way through to her feet. Tabor leaped into her arms. “What am I going to do with you?”

Tate tilted his head, waiting for a report or more likely a reward for staying put.

“I struck out,” she muttered under her breath. “They won’t allow single women traveling alone.” She set down the cat. “Y’all didn’t notice a phone booth where I could change clothes, did you?”

 Tabor scratched his chin with a hind paw, and Tate barked.

“Guess not.” As she silently watched an array of Indians, Mexicans, and bullwhackers walk in and out of the groggeries surrounding the public square, Kit’s hand eased into her pocket and clasped the Derringer. The weapon provided only a small measure of security. She seriously doubted it would scare off a man threatening her with a bullwhip or bowie knife.

The freight office door opened behind her, and she heard the Highlander quoting poetry. Then the sidewalk creaked under firmly planted footsteps. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder. He swaggered in her direction as if he were on a mission to mark an item off his to-do list.

“Ma’am,” he said, walking until he stood close to her. “My name’s Cullen Montgomery.”

She grabbed the wagon wheel and laced her fingers between the spokes. Surely, he wasn’t the Montgomery in Frances Barrett’s journal. She cleared the nervous knot from her throat. “I’m Kitherina MacKlenna.”

He placed his hands on his hips and tapped out a silent rhythm with his fingertips. “I might be able to help you, Mrs. MacKlenna, if you’re interested.” 

Mrs. MacKlenna? That was her mother’s name, not hers. But the wedding ring she twisted on her finger said the name now belonged to her. “What’d you have in mind?”

He searched her face so intently that heat spread across her cheeks. “Do you have funds to pay someone to drive your rig?”

“Do you know someone I can hire?”

“I can’t make promises before talking with John Barrett, but his lads are old enough to hire out. He might be willing to let one work for you for reasonable wages.”

“Barrett? I…I’d like to meet him.” Were these random events coming together to form a grand design or just plain old coincidences? If she had to place a bet, she’d go with a grand design, and she found that unnerving.

Cullen scratched under his chin with the backs of his fingers. “Barretts are camped outside of town. Stay here. I’ll be back.”

She gulped. No way was she letting him out of her sight. “I’ll go with you.”

Tate barked, and Cullen turned toward the dog. “Pretty. What is he? Never seen the breed before.”

Oh great. She cleared her throat and told her next lie. “He’s a mix. He’s also a stowaway.”

The dog had jumped into the nineteenth century uninvited, and his ancestors wouldn’t come along for another ten years.

Cullen issued a playful growl. “Stowaways have to earn their keep.” Then he spotted the cat. “And, what do we have here?” 

The pressure of questions she couldn’t answer hovered in the air. “That’s Tabor. He’s a stowaway, too.”

Cullen scratched the cat’s head and gave Kit’s Thoroughbred an appreciative glance. “You have quite a menagerie.” 

A menagerie was exactly right. How was she going to keep them healthy? She’d prepared for Stormy and the oxen but not the little ones. Why couldn’t she have snuck out of town without them? Maybe she should take them home and start over. But what if the brooch operated like a revolving door and left her spinning between two worlds?

Oh, that’s a scary thought.  

Cullen placed warm hands at her waist and lifted her to the bench seat, then climbed up beside her. His clothes carried the pleasing apple and cherry aroma that had been present in the office. She bounced her leg and refrained from chewing her thumbnail. Stacks of sketchpads lined the shelves in her bedroom closet. Each pad had drawings of the ghost who resembled the man beside her. Every line on his face seemed familiar to her, but he had no scar below his right ear.

“Get-up.” The animals moved out on his command. “You’ve got a well-trained team and larger than other oxen around here. What’d your husband feed them?”

“My husband fed them Kentucky bluegrass and hay.” The lie sank her feet deeper into the proverbial hole, caking her boots with thick Missouri mud?

Cullen weaved the wagon through the crowded street, wearing a tight jaw look of concentration. When they reached the edge of town, he halted the team and pointed to a group of wagons nestled in a grove of oak trees. “The Barretts are camp there.”

She stood, intending to go meet them.

He stretched out his arm, blocking her movement. “Whoa, lass. It’d be best if you stayed behind.”

Stay. Is he kidding?

He climbed down and walked away from the wagon.

She swung her leg over the side, but stopped abruptly when her annoying internal voice reminded her that she was out of her element and needed to be patient. “Damn.” She plopped down on the seat and twiddled her thumbs.

Cullen forged his way through the overcrowded campsites, shaking hands and slapping backs. Children hugged his legs and women offered plates of food. Kit had seen politicians work crowds, but this part-Highland-bard, part-American-cowboy seemed to have disarming charisma. She stopped twiddling and watched the ease at which he moved—relaxed, yet with an air of confidence.

She shook her head, baffled, not only by the Highlander, but also by the magical stone. Why didn’t the brooch send her directly to South Pass instead of putting her through an eight-week journey that forced her to impose on people she didn’t know? Granny Mac would tell her if she stayed preoccupied with the questions, she might never discover the answers.

Oh well. She went back to twiddling and hummed a little rock and roll.

Cullen reached the Barretts’ campsite and assisted a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man heaving sacks into a wagon. When the work was done, the two men leaned against the tailgate and crossed their arms across their chests. The man she assumed was Barrett lit a pipe. As he smoked, he occasionally pointed in her direction with his pipe-holding hand.

Jeez, she’d love to be a hub in the wheel and hear the conversation. I bet Montgomery is telling him I’m a helpless widow?  The thought sparked a kick-ass reaction—a need to prove she was the least helpless female she knew. She tapped her foot and twiddled so fast her thumbs rammed together. As soon as I secure a spot on the wagon train, I’ll set Montgomery straight. She’d wager a sack of gold coins that she could shoot straighter, ride faster, and hum Bach concertos he’d never heard before. “Helpless. Pshaw.”

Then it occurred to her that Barrett might think she’d be too much trouble if she were so helpless. Then it’s time to set them both straight. She swung her leg back over the side, but reined herself in when a woman and a teenage boy wearing an out-of-control cowlick joined the two men. The stocky youngster had to be Barrett’s son—such was his resemblance to his father.

The woman scrunched her brow and glanced in Kit’s direction. Then she turned to Cullen and said something that made him laugh.

And what’s so damn funny?

He placed his hands behind his back and perused the small group. Although she couldn’t hear him, she could tell from his audiences’ rapt attention that he was speaking slowly and deliberately to each one. What was he saying? She watched his full lips hoping to pick up a word or two. Where did she get the notion she could trust him to plead her case? He’d been no help at the freight office. Just because he volunteered to assist her now, didn’t mean he had her best interest at heart.

Her foot pounded against the floorboard, rocking the wagon. “Come on. Come on. What’s taking so long?” She fingered the brooch in her pocket and wondered if Elliott knew she was gone yet. Did she make a mistake not including him? If he had come, she wouldn’t be sitting there feeling helpless.

While she was second guessing herself, the powwow concluded and Cullen sauntered back to her wagon with the man and boy in tow. If body language cues remained constant throughout the centuries, then in Cullen’s pointed gaze, she read success. From all appearances, she was on her way to South Pass. She loaded a smile with a spoonful of conjured up confidence, gathered her skirt, and climbed from the wagon.

“Mrs. MacKlenna, this is Mr. Barrett and his son, Adam. We talked about your predicament and worked out an agreement that will satisfy Captain Peters.”

It didn’t matter what the terms were, Kit would agree to anything. Then she remembered the way she’d been treated in the freight office and decided to listen, evaluate, and then make a decision. The terms might be more restrictive than she could live with.

She folded her arms across her chest. “What are they?”

adam will drive your wagon and take care of your stock for a salary of one hundred dollars. He’s to be paid twenty-five dollars now, twenty-five when we reach Fort Laramie, another twenty-five when we reach South Pass. The balance when we arrive in Oregon City.”

“Sounds—” She gulped back her surprise. Ten times that amount wouldn’t be enough. “—reasonable.” She wasn’t sure what else to say.

“You’ll be responsible for your own food,” Cullen continued. “Mrs. Barrett invited you to contribute to their supplies and take meals with them.” He pulled a piece of paper from his vest pocket, pursed his lips, nodded, then shoved the note back into his pocket. “If these terms are suitable, a handshake will seal the deal.”

Barrett squinted his dark brown eyes at her. “Never shook hands with a woman ‘afore.” He removed his hat and threaded the brim through his fingers. Sun-streaked brown hair fell across his forehead. Full eyebrows, wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, and a square jaw framed a rather nice looking face, except for the sour expression. “My boy will work for you, but if’n he needs discipline, you leave that to me.”

Discipline a strapping young man a head taller? Not likely. “Yes, sir,” she said, in a respectful tone.”

He stuck out his frying-pan-sized hand with blunt-tipped fingers. His tender grip surprised her, and she couldn’t reconcile his touch with his displeased expression.

“I’ll be glad to pay you the entire amount in advance,” she said.

His eyes flickered, and he seemed to consider the offer. “The deal we struck is twenty-five dollars today.”

Cullen clapped Barrett on the shoulder. “Believe my work is done.” He held Kit’s gaze. “If you need anything more, Adam can find me.”

“I’m very grateful for your help.” Looking into his face now, she noticed slight differences between him and her ghost. Maybe it was a trick of the afternoon sun. Maybe not. Cullen had a fuller face and mischief in his eyes. Her ghost always had sad eyes and sunken cheeks and appeared twenty-five pounds leaner. 

He tipped his hat and ambled back toward town, whistling Bach again. This time, Violin Concerto in A Minor. She knew Classical composures and was curious if his repertoire, like hers, extended into the Renaissance and Baroque eras, too.   

Tate pointed his nose to the sky and howled.

A smile flashed across Adam’s face, a wrinkle-free version of his father’s. “Guess your dog don’t favor that kind of music.”

Kit patted Tate’s head. “He’s partial to banjos and guitars.” 

A woman and two boys approached Barrett. They had remained a short distance away during the negotiations. “Mrs. MacKlenna, this here’s my wife, Sarah, and my other boys, Ben and Clint.”

The woman smiled, crinkling the corners of her light brown eyes. Where Barrett seemed off-putting, Mrs. Barrett seemed as sweet as a breath of spring air, radiating a similar calm spirit as Kit’s mother. A knot formed in her throat, and she twirled the ring on her finger.

“If you’ve a mind to, come sit a spell. We’ll talk.”

“That’d be nice,” Kit said.

Barrett gazed into his wife’s eyes. “While you ladies are visiting, I’ll borrow a buckboard to carry you to the mercantile.” He checked the time on his pocket watch. “I’ll be back in an hour.” He trailed the curve of his index finger down the back of his wife’s hand. The look in her eyes spoke to the love she had for him.

Kit glanced away and tried to swallow the knot growing to obstruction size in her throat. Her father always said a woman in love was like a blooming rose. She’d never bloomed, but then again, she’d never tried. Scars wrapped her heart inside a thorny thicket, and it would take someone with a machete to hack their way through.

Now you've been introduced to Cullen, Henry, Kit, Sandy, Elliott, Sean, Mary, Tate, Tabor, Stormy, John and Adam. Leave a comment about one of the characters and someone will be randomly selected to win a Smashwords coupon for a free download of The Ruby Brooch. Chapter Four will be posted tomorrow.

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