“EN GARDE!” Adam waved a cattle prod in one hand and held a volume of Shakespeare in the other.
Kit perked up. “What’s my part?” Sword fighting was better than watching the muddy bottomland along the north bank of the Kansas pass by at two miles an hour while remembering Cullen’s kiss. Why’d he do it? Everything about the kiss was wrong, and the guilt overwhelmed her. It was the wrong time, and Cullen was the wrong man. He had a life he was moving toward, and she had a life she was trying to find. They weren’t for each other. Not in the past. Not in the present.
“En garde!” Adam yelled again.
She grabbed the extra prod and lunged, imagining her opponent was Cullen. No, he didn’t deserve to be stabbed through the heart, but another body part came to mind.
“Here, you take the book and read the parts of Romeo and Mercutio. I have Tybalt’s lines memorized.” Adam squared his shoulders, pointed his cattle-prod-sword at her, and advanced. “I am for you.”
“Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up.” Kit read Romeo’s lines then lowered her voice and read Mercutio’s part. “Come, sir, your pasado.”
Tybalt extended his sword arm and attacked Mercutio who counter-attacked with a chopping motion.
Kit held the book at arm’s length, projected her voice, and read Romeo’s lines. “Draw, Benvolio; beat down their weapons. Gentlemen, for shame, forbear this outrage! Tybalt, Mercutio, the prince expressly hath forbidden bandying in Verona streets: Hold, Tybalt! good Mercutio!”
Tybalt/Adam ducked and stabbed Mercutio/Kit.
“I am hurt. A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped. Is he gone, and hath nothing?” Kit read her lines with dramatic flair, then fell to the ground with the book in one hand, cattle prod in the other. Folks walking alongside their wagons applauded as they passed the impromptu theatrical production.
Adam reached for her hand. “Have you seen this play on stage? A professional actor couldn’t have done better.”
Kit clasped his hand, and he pulled her to her feet. She took a bow. “Thank you, sir.” She turned and bowed to their clapping audience. “I saw it performed in New—”
A woman’s bone-chilling scream invaded the quiet prairie. The clapping stopped. Smiles froze. Kit squeezed Adam’s hand. They listened in silence. The piercing sound hung in the air like the last note of an operatic performance sung in a vibrato-free voice.
Then the woman took a breath and screamed again.
There was a half-mile distance between the first wagon and the last, making it impossible for Kit, standing in the middle of the long line of wagons, to identify the voice.
“Where’re your sisters?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I haven’t seen them since y’all got out of the buckboard to walk.”
“Go find them. Frances may be with Anna. I’m going up ahead.”
The wagons stopped, and everyone ran in the direction of the screams. A crowd packed six-deep had gathered by the time Kit reached the wailing woman. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Let me through.”
The sight of Mrs. Ingram hugging the blood-soaked, mangled body of her child shocked Kit, sending her to the edge of a mental crevasse.
The mother's wailing continued. “Oh, my God. My God,”
A patchwork quilt hung over her husband's shaking arms. Acute pain had twisted and pressed his ghostly-white face out of shape. “Martha, give me the boy.” He pried her hands loose, one bloody finger at a time. Then he wrapped the child in the multi-colored shroud.
Her bloody hands grasped the air in a futile attempt to reclaim the stolen life. “Please don’t take him away. Don’t take my baby.”
The nightmarish scene stripped Kit of her paramedic-in-control-façade, and she tumbled over the edge into a deep, dark hole.
I’ve got to get out of here.
She ran from the red-stained earth and the pungent smell of blood. But she couldn’t outrun the memory of that singular moment when death stole Scott from her arms. The phantom pain remained, stinging and jabbing, not with a cattle prod but with a double-edged rapier. Her lungs burned like hot coals, pushing her to run faster until her legs simply withered beneath her, and she fell to the ground. Tears rippled down her cheeks.
Footsteps sounded behind her. “Shh.” Cullen’s warm breath blew across her neck as he knelt at her side. “The boy jumped off the wagon and fell under the wheel.”
She folded her arms in a self-embrace. “It’s my fault. I should have told the children not to jump from wagons.”
“All the children sing the song you wrote. They know the rules.” He pressed his strong hand against her arm's chilled flesh. “You knew the dangers when you signed on for this trip. Accidents happen.”
“Dangers are everywhere.” Words tumbled out with her cascading sobs. “You scared me. Why’d you kiss me?”
He tensed against her. “You have such bravado. How could I scare you?”
She covered her face with her apron and cried into the scratchy fabric. “There’s nothing brave about me.” She wanted to ask him to hold her, but she wouldn’t.
Two small hands grabbed Kit’s wrists. “I saw the wheel roll over him.”
She looked up and gazed into Frances’s eyes, red and swollen eyes that had seen much more than they needed to see. Kit’s heart splintered into even more pieces. Frances needed hope and reassurance. She needed to know she was safe and protected. She needed love and compassion in the midst of trauma and grief. How could Kit give what she so desperately needed herself?
She looked into Cullen’s eyes, imploringly.
“You’re not alone, lass. I’m here.” He pulled her onto his lap, as Kit pulled Frances onto hers, and Kit began to sing softly, “And the children will find their hope and the promise of peace. What they lost will be restored, in His arms and at His feet.”
Cullen hummed along. His calming presence had a soothing effect on Kit, and Frances relaxed against her. If Kit had the power to erase only one horrible memory, it would not be one of hers. It would be the one claiming a corner of Frances’s mind.
KIT wiped sweat from her forehead and glared at the log fort built along the bottomland south of the Platte River. The wagon train had traveled three weeks and three-hundred-twenty miles and had reached the first milestone—Fort Kearney.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” she said.
“But it’s got a sutler’s store,” Sarah said.
Kit put her arm around her friend’s thick waist. “I’ve never heard you say anything critical or even get angry. How do you do that?”
Sarah laughed. “Oh, I get angry. I just don’t let anyone see it. John and the children don’t need to worry over me.”
“As my Granny Mac would say, you’re going straight up when you die. You’re as close to perfect as any person I’ve ever met.”
Sarah patted Kit’s hand as they approached the store. “You’re sweet to say that, but I’m far from perfect. Now Cullen,” she said straight-faced, “is as close to perfect as any person could be.”
Kit laughed so hard she got a stitch in her side.
Cullen walked out of the store. The door’s squeaky hinges cried out with a groan. “Are you women laughing at me?”
Kit dabbed her eyes with the tail of her apron. “You shouldn’t eavesdrop.”
Sarah eased a path around Cullen, and he opened the door for her. She paused in the doorway. “You coming to dinner? Kit made an apple pie.”
“I make no guarantees on how it tastes,” Kit said. “It was my first Dutch-oven pie in several years.”
Cullen flashed a wide grin. “I’m not one to incommode, but I can’t pass up any sweets you’re offering.”
His double entendres were becoming more blatant.
He slipped a letter into his vest pocket and ambled toward her, pulling his hat lower to shade his eyes from the glaring sun.
“You got mail?”
He patted his chest. “It’s from my friend, Braham. He’s meeting us at Fort Laramie.”
“He’s the friend you mentioned to General Sherman.”
“That’s Captain Sherman, but I’m sure he’d be pleased with the promotion. Yes, Braham is the friend I mentioned. We were close as brothers growing up. Went to the University of Edinburgh, then on to Harvard. We’ll be law partners in San Francisco.”
“How’d y’all decide on California?”
“Only place we could agree on. We were both in San Francisco last spring.”
“Is that when you met Abigail?” No one other than Sarah had ever mentioned the woman to Kit, but her curiosity needed to be fed.
He cocked an eyebrow, nodded, but didn’t offer any details.
Sarah stepped out of the store. The door slammed behind her, almost knocking the packages from her arms.
Kit reached out to help. “Let me carry those.”
“Don’t forget dinner, Cullen. We don’t want to waste Kit’s pie.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners, “My mouth’s already watering knowing how sweet it’ll taste.”