Independence, Missouri, April 4, 1852
KIT KEPT A white-knuckled grip on the bench seat until the frantic ride ended as abruptly as it had begun, cutting her loose in a fog. Fuzzy shapes appeared all around her.
Who’s out there? What’s out there?
Whatever or whoever it was, she wasn’t about to face the unknown without protection. She reached into the carpetbag at her feet, wrapped her fingers around an 1850 single-shot Henry Deringer pistol, one of the weapons she’d pilfered from her father’s gun collection, and slipped it between the folds of her skirt.
One shot. One chance. Not particularly good odds.
The fog lifted with the dramatic flair of a curtain rising on an opening act. The unfolding scene could easily be a refugee camp. Smokey campfires and hundreds of tents and wagons covered acres of land in a nineteenth-century version of uncontrolled urban sprawl.
Then, wham. The stench of garbage, manure, and burned coffee hit her nostrils, disturbing her already queasy stomach. A hammer’s clang rang from the blacksmith’s forge and reminded her of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Not a good omen.
Kit’s gaze followed the haggard woman’s face as they cooked and tended to children. Men huddled in small groups with maps spread opened on makeshift tables.
No one’s pointing at me. I just dropped out of the sky and no one cares. Tension unknotted in her shoulders, and her trigger finger relaxed.
The six oxen remained quiet, apparently undaunted by their journey through the time portal. Stormy had his tail up, ears pricked forward, and eyes focused. Tate jumped over the trunks and burlap bags, climbed up on the seat beside her, and licked her hand.
“Are you okay?” She dug her fingers into his dense, reddish-blond fur and scratched his neck, jiggling his dog tags. The collar had to come off and with it his flea protection. “Sorry, buddy, but I don’t think anyone would understand what this is.”
The weather felt warm against her skin but not hot, and sunlight filtered through a few wispy clouds in a deep, blue sky. A Renoir sky, her art teacher would say. The beauty beyond the smoky campsites warmed an urge to draw that had been stone cold since the crash, but now wasn’t the time. As soon as she found a wagon train bound for Oregon, she could sketch until she wore her pencils’ graphite tips to nubs. When she returned home, she’d have notebooks full of sketches and a lifetime to paint them.
Tate nudged her arm.
“You’re ready to go, aren’t you?”
His dark, deep-set eyes said, “Yes.”
Based on her research, she would begin at Waldo, Hall & Company, a freighting business operating out of a two-story brick building near Independence Square. If they couldn’t lead her to a wagon train, her next stop would be Hiram Young’s Wagon Shop.
A quick spank with the whip and the oxen lumbered up the hill following an old road toward town. When she spotted the freight office’s rusty sign swaying over an oak door, her hands turned cold and clammy. She gave herself a mental kick in the ass. I’m a first responder. Fear has never held me back. She stood on the edge of a panic attack.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
It took a couple of minutes, but by the time she halted the team in front of the freight office, her breathing had returned to normal.
Can I leave everything unattended? Certainly not something she could do in her century.
With a nonchalant air, she glanced up and down the street. Some nasty-looking men were hanging around, and never-met-a-stranger Tate didn’t amount to much of a watchdog. The freight office though was only ten or so feet from the wagon. If she stayed close to the door, she could listen for sounds of trouble.
He wagged his tail.
“I mean it, Tate. Stay. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
The door barely creaked when she pushed it open on a paper-cluttered office smelling of apple and cherry pipe tobacco. In a sunlit corner of the room, a man reading the Independence Reporter sat tipped back on a chair’s spindly rear legs, the heels of his muddy boots looped over the chair rung. A head of thick, black hair peeked above the newspaper. The man rustled the publication, turning pages slow and easy with long slim fingers.
Kit cleared her throat. “Can you help me? I want to join a wagon train heading to Oregon.”
The deep burr of a Highlander’s voice came from behind the newspaper. “We set out in the morning and have room for one more family.”
Kit stared at the newsprint still blocking the speaker’s face. “I don’t have a family.” She paused for a shaky breath then continued. “Could I— Can I still join up? I’m a widow” Her tongue caught on the lie, and a heated blush spread across her cheeks.
The chair dropped to the heart-of-pine floor with a heavy thud. The man unfolded his long, lean body and stood. She guessed him to be about six-one, one eighty. She was good at sizing up people whether they were standing or lying on a gurney.
Ropey veins in his forearms pulsed beneath red-flannel shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows. The loose shirt did little to disguise the broad expanse of his chest. He tossed the newspaper to the pedestal desk and turned toward her, glaring with vibrant blue eyes curtained by thick lashes. A rough layer of dark morning whiskers covered his square-jawed face.
The downy hairs on her neck stood upright. Impossible.
She couldn’t take her eyes off him. Even facial scruff couldn’t hide the face as recognizable as her own. The face of her ghost.
The floor fell away from beneath her feet, and she swayed, but somehow remained standing. The man began to whistle the unmistakable strains of Bach’s Joy of Man’s Desiring. A Bach-whistling ghost look-alike. No. Her ghost always appeared clean-shaven and impeccably dressed, not scruffy like this Highlander.
Think logically. This man is on his way to Oregon. If he’s going west, he can’t be at MacKlenna Farm selecting Thomas’s gravesite when he dies on January 25, 1853.
He wasn’t her ghost, but whoever he was, he had an unnerving effect on her. His close proximity and the look of puzzlement in his eyes sent her heart drumming to a loud, irregular beat.
Worry about getting to South Pass. Nothing else matters. She didn’t even know for sure she’d arrived in the right year. A quick sideways glance at the newspaper and an inward laugh bubbled up. April 4, 1852. Good God. I did it.
Granted, the paper could be a week old, but assuming it was a reasonably current edition, she could estimate the number of travel days she needed.
She mentally calculated. The distance from Independence to South Pass was nine-hundred-fourteen miles. Traveling an average of twenty miles a day, the trip would take forty-six days. April 4 to June 16 totaled seventy-three days. That gave her twenty-seven days for layovers and river crossings. If she left Independence soon, she could arrive in time.
The Highlander shook the shoulders of a man sleeping in a chair with his legs propped on a crate marked textiles. “Henry, the widow wants to join our wagon train, but she’s got no family.”
He opened his eyes and peered at her beneath droopy eyelids. Deep grooves etched his leathery, wind-burned face. Faded cavalry pants and an unbleached cotton shirt covered his burly frame. Graying hair fell short of his collar. He dropped his feet and his boot heels scraped the floor. Then he put his hands on his knees and stood, grunting under the effort. The joints in his bowed legs popped and cracked with each step he took. He skirted the desk and drew to a standstill in front of her.
“Sorry for your loss ma’am, but we got rules. Single women ain’t allowed ’less they’re traveling with family.”
A swell of outrage surged through her. She leveled her best you’ve-got-to-be-kidding glare. “Why?” The question eked out in a shriek, and she wanted to snag it and reel it back in. First impressions were important, and she didn’t want to appear to be a shrew.
“Three reasons.” He ticked them off on stubby fingers. “One—pretty little things without a man around cause trouble. Two—you cain’t do the work. Three—you ain’t strong enough.”
Kit puffed out her chest. Never mind first impressions. She mirrored his three fingers. “I can take care of myself, my wagon, and my animals.”
He gave her a one-shoulder shrug. “You ain’t going. Not by yourself.”
“Then I’d like to speak to your supervisor.”
He screwed up his face. “Ain’t nobody else. Just me."
The Highlander’s eyes held a quickening of interest, but he didn’t intervene. She tapped her foot. Maybe she could buy her way onto the wagon train. Smiling, she directed a question to the old soldier. “What will it take for you to…uh… reconsider?”
He picked up his pipe and tobacco pouch off the desk and leveled a smile, cold and unmoving, that didn’t match his warm brown eyes. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. Single women ain’t allowed. That’s all I’m saying ’bout it.”
“But—” She stopped herself. Arguing would not change their minds. Their no single women policy reeked of blatant discrimination and there wasn’t a thing she could do. Or, was there?
The smoke in the room settled over her in a choking cloud. She coughed.
If she donned the shorthaired wig and britches she often wore during the Annual Old Kentucky Farm Days Celebration she could pass herself off as a boy. The disguise would fool the old codger. She chewed her nail as she devised a plan. I’ll change my clothes, lower my voice, put some dirt on my face, then come back and try again.
She gave them her best just-you-wait smirk, turned on her heels, and left the office.
CULLEN MONTGOMERY WATCHED the honey-haired beauty gather her pride and walk out, leaving behind a hypnotic vanilla scent. When she’d first spoke, her dulcet voice had glided across his skin, soft and silky like early morning dew on his Highland hills. Although tempted to lower the newspaper and glance at the woman, he didn’t want to be disillusioned when he discovered the voice of his dreams had the face of his nightmares. Then she spoke again, announcing she was widow, piquing his curiosity even more. But he’d still refrained from gazing at her until she stood so close he could feel her warm breath on his skin. Finally, he relented and looked her way.
The enigmatic beauty stood caught in a beam of light streaming through the partially opened slats on the shuttered window. Stunned, his breathing had stopped, his step had faltered, and words had abandoned him. Unable to speak, he whistled as he gazed into emerald green eyes that burned with intelligence and something else. A spark of recognition.
Impossible. He didn’t think he’d ever seen the woman. If he had, he certainly would have remembered, but the look in her eyes still puzzled him. He rubbed the crook of his index finger across his chin, musing—a beautiful widow. The heated rush of sexual desire coursed through him.
With a breath of regret, he slapped Henry’s shoulder. “You’re all horns and rattles, old man.”
The old soldier remained silent while he took a pinch of tobacco between his thumb and forefinger, loaded the bowl of his presidential-face pipe, lit it, and drew on it several times. “You know dang good ’n well I only wanted to change her mind ‘bout travelin’ alone.”
Cullen looked into his friend’s glum face. “The lass brought up memories of Mary Spencer, didn’t she? You’re not to blame for her disappearance.”
Henry wagged his pipe-holding hand. “I told her she could join up, and then she vanished. If I’d sent her packing like the little missy just here, she’d still be alive. She would have gotten back on that boat and gone home instead of hanging around town waiting on the wagon train.”
Cullen strode across the room to the window and opened the wooden shutters to a square shaft of sunlight. “You don’t know she’s dead.”
“I know she ain’t around no more. Neither is her wagon.”
Miss Spencer was gone, and he couldn’t help her, but he could help the widow. “Maybe there is a solution.”
“You’re as wise as a tree full of owls, son. You’ll figure it out.”
Cullen fixed Henry with a stare, and then headed toward the door, opening it.
“Where’re you goin’?”
The words to one of Cullen’s favorite poems came to mind, and he elocuted, “To help my lady with the gold o’ morning sun shimmering in her hair. The saints be with the Highland lass who rides her mighty steed, beyond the heather she brings the glory light for my soul too dark to see.”
Henry feigned a coughing spell.
“Ye wander far across the loch, oh lads o’ Callander…” Cullen continued. Then with the keening sound of his favorite pipe tune playing in his mind, he went to help the bonnie lass.
So far you've been introduced to Cullen, Henry, Kit, Sandy, Elliott, Sean, Mary, Tate, Tabor, and Stormy. 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 Three will be posted tomorrow.