Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ruby Brooch Chapter Thirty-Five

KIT RODE ALONG the riverbank, leaning from the saddle, searching the ground for any sign Cullen had come ashore. After repeated dismounts to study broken branches and dark stains on the dry ground, she gave up riding and walked. Fear clung to her ankles and each weighted step dragged her farther into a rising pit of despair.

She found nothing. No blood, no footprints, no trampled underbrush. But she wasn’t an experienced tracker. She needed help. She needed Henry. That meant delaying the search and racing back to camp.

I have to go, Cullen, but I’ll be back. We’ll find you. I promise. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

She gathered Cullen’s and the dead men’s horses, put heels to Stormy, and galloped toward the wagon train. She passed landmarks Cullen had pointed out earlier in the day. Two of them she missed because her eyes were too blurry with tears to watch where she was going. Backtracking wasted precious time. Jasper and the other three horses slowed her down, but she couldn’t have left them behind. She knew bringing them along wasn’t logical, but somehow worrying over the horses helped her construct a wall of denial, and she snugged in behind it.

Cullen was missing. Only missing.

Her denial grew even stronger while watching the sun struggle to show itself from behind fast-scudding rainclouds. It won’t rain. Not yet. Not until she found her husband.

KIT SPOTTED THE red cross she’d painted on her wagon’s canvas. She needed more than medical help right now. She needed Henry. An inkling of hope crawled up her brick wall of denial. Grab Henry and hurry back to the river. There’d be no time for discussion or debate. 

Kit jerked on the reins and stopped at the Barretts’ campsite, the horses lathered up and blowing, their hooves swirling dirt and dust up around her. She spotted Henry and John right away and waved frantically. They dropped the map they were studying and race toward her, alarm written on their creased faces.

Henry reached her first and grasped Stormy’s bridle to settle him. “What’s wrong?”

“Where’s Cullen?” John asked, taking the lead rope attached to the other horses.

“We got jumped.” She was breathing too fast, making speech difficult. “Cullen fell into the Deschutes. I need…I need you to come back with me. Now.”

Who jumped you?” Henry asked.

Kit was overbreathing, and the faster she breathed the more panicky she became. She covered her mouth with clammy hands and breathed in and out, trying to get CO2 back into her system. Too late. Her arms and legs went numb, and she tumbled out of the saddle.

KIT MOANED AND snuggled into Cullen’s chest. No, it wasn’t Cullen’s scent. Who was carrying her, taking her farther from her husband? She wrestled her arms free and pushed.

“I got you, missy. No one’s going to hurt you.” Henry’s soothing voice gave her a moment’s reprieve. Her eyes fluttered, then opened. She stared up into his weathered face.

“Oh, God.” She wiggled to get free. “We need to hurry. Cullen needs us.”

“Tell me what happened?” He carried her to the Barretts’ dining tent and set her on the bench next to the table. 

Sarah hurried in behind Henry, wringing her hands. A contingent of men followed, bringing a buzz of low-voiced conversations. One man’s voice raised above the others, asking, “What happened? Where’s Cullen?”

Henry held up his hand, demanding silence from the gathering. “Step back and give her room to breathe.” He squatted in front of Kit and took her hand in his. “Now, start at the beginning.”

A malignant odor lingered in the air. Pregnancy made her olfactory sense more acute, but even if she hadn’t been pregnant, she’d have recognized the smell of unadulterated fear—blood and decay. She reeked of it.

“We rode to the top of a cliff.” Her voice wobbled. “The cliff overlooked the Deschutes.” She touched her throat, remembering the chokehold. She gagged. “Three men jumped us. You know those men…those men in my pictures.”

The crowd gasped and started murmuring. Henry held up his hand again, silencing them.

“We fought.” The memories came back in a rush, and her hands flittered in front of her face, trying to push them away. “They shot Cullen.” She pressed her shaking fingers against the muscle burning in her arm as if she could staunch the blood flowing from Cullen’s wound.

“Go on.” Blue veins pulsed on the sides of Henry’s head.

Kit ran her tongue over her lips. Her mouth was dry, thick with trail dust. Sarah handed her a cup, and she turned it up and gulped. Water dribbled down her chin. She moved in slow motion, wiping her face and speaking at the same sluggish speed.

“Cullen lost his balance.” Her voice sounded distant as if she stood outside of herself, an observer, not a participant. “The man they called Jess, pushed Cullen, and he fell off the cliff.

She covered her eyes with her forearm. Relieving the horror stopped her heart as it had originally. After a pause, her heart restarted with the shock of a defibrillator, instantly reminding her of the urgency. “I searched the riverbank for several miles, but I couldn’t find him. I came back to get you, Henry. We have to go now.” She stood, but Henry drew her back onto the bench.

“You just fell off your horse. You’re not going anywhere.” His eyes were dark and intense.

“I have to go.” She tried again to stand, but he pressed on her shoulders.

“John and I will go, but you’re staying put.”

She sucked in a shuddering breath and steadied herself for a battle with Henry. Sarah scooted him aside. “Let me bandage that cut on your cheek.”

 Kit grabbed Sarah’s arm and dug her fingers into the woman’s soft flesh. “Don’t let them leave without me. They don’t know where to go.”

“What happened to the men who attacked you?” John asked.

“They’re dead.”

Questions scribbled across his chiseled face. How could she admit she’d killed three men when she couldn’t reconcile it in her own mind?

“Draw us a map. We’ll find him,” Henry said.

“You either take me with you, or I’ll follow you. I’m not staying behind.”

Henry frowned. “You’re beat up and you’ve had a hard ride. Think about your baby.”

“The baby’s fine, and other than getting smacked in the face, I’m not hurt. Please, don’t leave me behind.”

Henry glanced at the sky. “Near impossible to track him at night, especially if it rains.”

“We should wait until first light,” John said.

Another wave of panic swamped her. “Are you crazy? He’ll be dead by morning.” She shook Henry’s arm. “You can find him. You did before. I know he’s still alive.”

“Not even Henry can track in the dark,” John said.

Her gaze shot upward. The edges of another storm cloud churned the sky into an ugly gray. Her heart raced, thudding in her ears. She heard what John wasn’t saying. “You don’t believe he’s alive, do you?” 

“Never lied to you before. Won’t start now. Cullen would have made it to shore, if he’d survived.”

Kit whipped around to face Henry. “Is that what you believe, too?”

Henry shoved a shaking hand through graying hair. Their eyes met for a moment and she saw worry, but also something much deeper and that scared her. Henry was afraid.

She stiffened. “I’m packing medical supplies, and then I’m leaving again.”

This can’t be happening.

She shambled away, her legs wobbly from the fight and hard ride. She was going back to search and neither shaking legs nor disingenuous friends were going to stop her. 

Sarah hurried after her. “Kit don’t go. Think about your baby. The men will find Cullen.”

“I don’t have a choice. My husband needs medical care. I have to go.” Her stomach fluttered like it had earlier. A moment of indecision hit her hard. She fell silent. Then the answer came. This was not a time for second-guessing. “Ask Adam to wipe Stormy down and give him some food and water. I need to leave as soon as I pack.”

In the dwindling light, she saw Sarah’s worried face. The expression caused something to corkscrew in her heart and Kit imagined the look mirrored hers. “You have faith that can move mountains. Move the one standing in my way so I can find Cullen.”

Sarah closed her eyes and her lips moved in silent prayer, and Kit felt a twinge of hope.

Henry stopped her before she reached her wagon and wrapped his burly arm around her shoulders. Her throat constricted, and she waited without breathing for him to speak.

“I’ll be ready in ten minutes. Get your rain gear.”

A sudden breeze, smelling of pine, stirred the damp hair on her forehead, and in that singular moment, facing the unknown and a possible rainstorm, Kit realized she was profoundly afraid. More afraid than she had ever been in her life. What if she couldn’t find him?

She shook her head, refusing to believe she had lost him, too.

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