TWO DAYS FROM Panama, the ship ran into gale-force winds that tossed Cullen and Henry about their stateroom. White-capped waves swamped the ship, and it groaned as timbers torqued almost beyond endurance. The main mast snapped, sending shudders through the heart of the vessel.
The ship’s rain-soaked captain burst through the cabin doorway with a four-sided glass lantern. A sliver of light washed over them. “The ship’s holding her own. We should pass through this in a few hours.” He stormed out as quickly as he had burst in.
Henry took Cullen’s arm. “Get in your berth. I’m strapping you down.”
Cullen knew he couldn’t huddle on the water-soaked floor, but standing triggered nausea. ”Leave me alone.”
“Next time you hit the wall you might just kill yourself. Come on, I’ll help you.”
Cullen didn’t have the strength to resist.
High waves battered the ship throughout the long night, but the ropes kept his body immobile and the pain tolerable.
The ship arrived in Panama on the seventeenth day. Cullen sat on deck and waited with Henry for a smaller vessel to pick them up. Cullen paid the transportation company to arrange his and Henry’s travel across the Isthmus to the harbor in Chagres.
As they waited to disembark, they watched the sunrise peek out of grey mist. Cullen rubbed his arms, tingling with memory of the beautiful sunrise following his wedding night. That was a magical morning, not only because Kit lay naked in his arms, but also because it had been the first full day of their life together.
A life cut much too short.
“You two found each other before. You’ll find each other again,” Henry said.
“If you can read my mind, then we’ve been traveling together too long.”
“Not hard to tell what you’re thinking when you get that misty-eyed look.”
Cullen cleared his throat. “I couldn’t have made it through the storm alone. Thanks for tagging along.”
His old friend puffed on his pipe. “It’s during storms we need friends the most.”
As they disembarked, a messenger met them with their overland itinerary.
“Let me see that,” Henry said.
With his blurry vision, Cullen couldn’t read anyway. He passed the envelope over.
Henry read the piece of paper then huffed. “A five-day trip across the jungle, and two of those days we’re riding damned mules. If we survive those willful beasts, there’s a flat-bottom boat ride down the river, then a train ride to Chagres. If we survive that ordeal, we’re booked on the Philadelphia to New Orleans.” He turned the paper over. “Looks like we’re on our own from there.”
“We’ll catch a paddleboat to Louisville.”
The overland trip was a dreadful week of fighting mosquitoes, eating bad food, and sloshing along muddy roads. Without being robbed or dumped in the jungle, Henry’s biggest fears, they arrived in Chagres and, after a four-day layover, boarded the steamer Philadelphia for the ten-day voyage to New Orleans.
Henry and Cullen were sitting on deck when the ship sailed into the Gulf of Mexico. “Have you thought about what you’re going to say to the MacKlennas?” Henry asked.
“I’ve thought of nothing else,” Cullen said.
“Are you going to tell them about Kit?”
“I don’t know.” Cullen closed his eyes and let the sea breeze drift over him. The headache lessened since leaving Chagres, and he was resting better. The dizziness still bothered him, but he could walk without squeezing the blood from Henry’s arm, and his appetite had improved. The water was his healing place, and he felt it at work now. Although he had no memory of falling from the cliff into the river, he sensed Kristen’s presence. Maybe she’d been there. Maybe she had rescued him, just like in his dream. Maybe.
Henry lit his pipe. “Never been to New Orleans.”
“Braham and I were there four years ago.” Cullen remembered very little about the visit other than bottles of bourbon and several faceless, nameless French women. He winced at the memory.
At New Orleans, Cullen booked passage on the A.L.Shotwell, and although Henry wanted to spend a couple of days in the city, Cullen was pleased the paddle wheeler was scheduled to depart for the upriver trip the next morning.
Six days later as they neared Louisville’s port, Cullen was standing on deck humming.
“What’s that music?” Henry asked.
“One of Kit’s songs, I can feel you all around me, sweetening the air I breathe. I feel her, Henry—in here.” Cullen tapped his chest. “I will see her again.”
Henry’s jaw stiffened. “Come on, let’s go ashore. We’ve a train to catch.”
Cullen took a deep breath. I will see you again.
The train stopped in Midway, Kentucky, and they disembarked.
“Quaint little town,” Henry said.
“I hope this quaint little town has a livery to hire a horse or carriage.”
Henry glanced down the street. “Wait here.” A few minutes later, a carriage stopped in front of the depot. Henry opened the door and leaned out. “We have a ride.”
Cullen climbed aboard glad for the bit of warmth inside the carriage. The weather was brisk. Autumn had shoved summer aside, leaving the day dressed in a glorious, red-golden coat.
“Where to, suh?” the driver asked.
“MacKlenna Farm. Do you know it?” Cullen asked.
“Yes, suh. Everybody know they MacKlennas. Law, they rich folk. Old Mister Thomas, he look like he having the finest time now his granddaughter come a home. You’n go there now, not a speck a interest in dying no more. He gone be a great-grandaddy fore spring.”
Cullen let the driver talk while he settled into the seat and made a notation in his journal: November 11, 1852, noon, arrived Midway, Kentucky. What will I find?