KIT CLEANED UP after supper at their camp on the Snake River at Three Island Crossing, and put the utensils away. Cullen sat at the table studying maps and notes in preparation for the meeting the men would have later. They’d left Fort Hall ten days earlier, and had a decision to make. Would they ford the river, the most treacherous crossing on the entire trail or would they take the dry southern route that wound around sand dunes and canyons?
She packed her drawing implements and found a quiet place to draw. She sketched the sagebrush-covered hill they had descended earlier that day. When she finished, she placed her sketchpad and pencils on the ground beside her. What decisions had previous travelers made? Had they had a heated debate over which was the best route? She hoped for Cullen’s sake, there would be a unanimous decision. Splitting the wagon train wouldn’t benefit anyone. The river was formidable, but so was the alternate route. She picked up a pencil and tapped it against her palm. If anyone could lead the group to a consensus, Cullen would.
She gazed out over the water. Surely, they would select the course Cullen recommended. Three prairie-grass covered islands, resembling stepping-stones, lay in the middle of the river. She began to draw them, concentrating on the southern-most and middle islands.
“Last time I was here, we lost an entire family on the island you’re drawing.”
Her body jerked, and her arms flew up in the air. “Damn, Cullen.” She whacked him on the head with her pad and accidentally jabbed his face with the blunt end of her pencil. “Why do you scare me?”
“Ouch. You hurt my chin.”
She looked at the small red dot below his lip. “Serves you right.”
“I’m sorry. I forget you go into a—what do you call it?—a zone?”
“I could have poked you in the eye.”
He grimaced. “I won’t scare you again.”
“Do you know how many times you’ve promised that?”
He raised his brows theatrically.
“Isn’t it time for your meeting to start?”
“Almost, but I needed a kiss first.” After he gave a lingering kiss, he studied her drawing. “Your sketch doesn’t even hint at the dangerous current hiding below the surface.”
“I don’t want to draw the danger. I want to appreciate the beauty. After we cross, if that’s the vote, I’ll consider adding shading and intensity to the water.”
He handed her the sketchpad. “Promise me you won’t jump into this river.” His voice was soft, but she caught an edge of fear in his eyes. She squeezed his hand. The trip west had turned out much more dangerous than she had imagined. Her naiveté had convinced her that knowledge, a gun, and karate would protect her. But these skills had only made her overconfident. Her risk-taking days were over. “You needn’t worry.”
“Pretend I just gasped,” he said, returning her smile. “Worrying is part and parcel of loving you.”
Her mouth opened to level a retort announcing the same was true in reverse, but Henry shouted, gesturing Cullen to join him at John’s wagon.
He checked his timepiece. “Time for the meeting.”
“What do you think the vote will be?”
“Folks are staying tight-lipped, even opinionated Mr. Cameron. If the wagon train splits, I’m committed to go with the largest group.”
“What does John want?”
“He knows I’ll recommend the crossing. I have his support.”
“Ask Reverend Hamilton to say a prayer that the crossing leads straight to green pastures.”
Cullen chuckled. “I’ll suggest that.” He lifted her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist, a kiss guaranteed to leave her wanting more. “I’ll be late to bed. If we’re to make the crossing, we’ll caulk the wagons tonight.”
“You can try to wake me, but I don’t promise you’ll be successful.”
“I’ve ne’er yet to wake you when you haven’t been sweetness in my arms.”
Her face heated. Cullen still had a way of making her blush.
BY TEN O'CLOCK, she had completed the weekly inventory of her red bag and repacked the backpack, adding a pair of Cullen’s trousers. Then exhausted, she went to sleep. Sometime later, he woke her, nuzzling her ear.
“What happened at the meeting?” She rolled over and wrapped her arms around his neck.
“We’re fording in the morning.”
“It’ll be dangerous.”
He kissed her. “Yes, and I expect you to stay where I put you.”
She kissed him back, whispering against his lips, “Do you ever not get your way?”
He lifted the hem of her gown. “You tell me, sweetling.”
SHORTLY BEFORE MID-MORNING, the dark clouds broke free and scattered, taking away fear of an impending storm. The men finished stringing rope from one side to the other, bridging the thousand-foot-wide river.
Everything was ready now.
The oxen pulled the first wagon into the three-foot-deep water. The next wagon followed, then the next as the animals forged ahead, finally touching the tip of the first island. When the wagons reached the second island, the men unhitched the teams to swim the remaining distance without their heavy loads. The caulked wagons became boats and floated to the north bank using the ropes as guides. Cullen and Henry rode along as outriders helping to keep the boat-wagons in line.
By late afternoon, two thirds of the wagons were on the north bank.
Kit and Sarah sat in the shade of the Barretts’ open-sided dining tent, facing the river, their sewing baskets and a pile of clothes to mend sitting on the table between them. Kit couldn’t concentrate on anything other than watching their men in the water, and she knew that was also true with Sarah. The crossing had gone smoothly so far, but she couldn’t relax until everyone was across.
The afternoon sun slanted across the river, obscuring details that might distinguish one dirty, worn wagon from another. Kit frowned as a wagon entered the water. “Whose wagon? Can you tell? Looks like it’s tipping.”
Sarah knitted her hands and held them under her chin. “That’s the Abbots. They might have a broken wheel?”
Kit stood and walked from under the tent. “They’re unhitching the team.” Her pulse quickened. “Looks like they’re going to float the wagon all the way across?”
Suddenly, men jumped out of other wagons and swarmed the disabled one.
Kit cupped her hands at her forehead to shade her eyes. “Somebody’s hurt.”
“Maybe they’re just afraid the wagon will tip and they’ll lose control.”
“Where’s Cullen?” Dread wrapped Kit’s chest in tight rubber bands.
“I don’t see John or the boys either.”
Minutes ticked by. Kit paced, gazing at the disabled wagon. “I can’t wait any longer. I’ve got to find out what’s happening.”
Sarah squeezed Kit’s arm. “Cullen wouldn’t want you back in the water.”
She considered her promise. But since she wouldn’t actually be jumping into the river she wasn’t technically breaking her word, right? “I won’t be long.” She mounted Stormy and raced into the water. The current was stronger now, but her horse was a confident swimmer and easily reached the middle island. Voices grew louder but words were unintelligible.
The men had pulled the wagon’s nose onto the first island. The left front wheel had fallen off, and the wagon sat lopsided. Where was Cullen? Where were the Barrett men? Cullen’s voice rose above the commotion. “Go back.”
She funneled her hands around her mouth. “Where are you?”
He poked his head from behind the wagon. “Adam’s hurt. Go back.”
Adam was hurt, but Cullen wanted her to go back. Why? Ignoring his command, she entered the water, then stopped, turned around, and headed back toward shore. In her century, she was a first responder, but in the nineteenth century, she was much more. She needed to hurry back and get ready.
Sarah ran to meet her. “Is anybody hurt?”
Kit dismounted and hobbled stormy. “It’s Adam.”
Sarah slapped her hand against her chest. “How bad?”
“Cullen didn’t say. They’re bringing him in now.”
Each minute carried the weight of an hour. Finally, Cullen and the wagon reached the north shore. He dismounted.
“What happened?” Kit’s throat held her heart.
“Axle broke. The boy fell.”
Tears rimmed Sarah’s eyes, and she wrung her hands. “Is John with him?”
“They’re both in the wagon.” Cullen’s face showed more concern than his voice reflected.
Sarah ran toward the wagon, calling for her husband.
“How bad is he hurt?” Kit asked, watching Sarah.
“A chunk of the wheel sheared off, rammed into his groin.”
Blood drain from her body. Visions of Scott swarmed inside her brain. She’d been unable to help him. What could she possibly do for Adam?
Cullen grabbed her, held her steady. “We need to get ready. I told John to bring him to our tent.”
She gazed into Cullen’s eyes and drew strength from him. Whatever else happened, he was with her. She didn’t have to face this or anything else alone, ever again.
“This way. Careful with the leg,” Henry said.
Adam moaned. The sound of his pain climbed into Kit’s heart, shocking her like a jolt of electricity. She ducked inside the tent. “Get my bag and the rubber sheet out of the trunk.” Cullen helped her cover the bed with the sheet, then Henry and John laid Adam down.
A six-inch sheared off piece of the spoke, half-inch in diameter, protruded from his body.
“Can’t we pull it out?” John asked.
A few beats of silence followed.
“No,” Kit said, finding her voice. “The femoral artery might be punctured.” She took a shaky breath.
“Tell me what to do,” Cullen said.
She rummaged in the bag, withdrew a bottle of Perocet. “This’ll cut the pain. Hand me a canteen.”
Adam jerked. His eyes were wide and wild. Kit shoved two pills into his mouth and placed the canteen against his trembling lips. “Swallow,” she ordered.
The men stood back while Kit cut away Adam’s pants leg. “His wet shirt and boots need to come off too.” She squatted beside the bed and studied the stake’s point of entry in the crease between the torso and right leg. It was impossible to tell how deeply it was embedded. Blood oozed from the wound, and his foot and ankle had turned pale and cold. She compared the pulses in his feet. The injured leg was much weaker. The stake probably hit a blood vessel. Which one and how extensive the damage she couldn’t tell until she extended the wound and removed the piece of wood.
She ushered Sarah and the three men out of the tent. “I think the stake is embedded in a blood vessel and is decreasing the blood flow to his foot. I can open him up and see what’s going on, but I’m not a surgeon. I can’t repair a vessel.”
“Will he lose the leg?” Cullen asked.
“It’s possible. But I couldn’t…” Her stomached roiled.
“Wait just a damned minute. Nobody’s cutting my boy’s leg off,” John said.
Sarah’s work-worn fingers curled into fists at her side. Tears streaked down her face. “Don’t let him die, Kit. You do whatever you have to do. I won’t lose another child. I won’t.”
“They’re not going to take his leg, Sarah.” John embraced his wife. “He’s going to be fine.”
“Let’s get the spoke out,” Kit said. “I’ll repair what I can, and then we’ll watch him. We might have to take the leg later, but not right now.”
How in the world did this happen? She wasn’t trained to open someone and tie off blood vessels. Sure, she’d seen vets do it at the equine center and had seen videos of vascular repair on people. But, actually performing the surgery… She hugged Sarah. “Why don’t you and John wait out here? I’ll call you if I need you.”
Sarah shook her head. “Adam needs his ma. I want to be with him.”
They all reentered the tent. Kit looked into the tensed faces of the people she had come to love. This was not how she wanted to reveal her identity to them. Not in a moment of crisis. Not like this. But she had no choice. Their lives would change now. They would treat her differently. They would know she wasn’t one of them. No matter how much she longed to be a member of the flock, they wouldn’t accept her. Even Cullen, coming from a Celtic, mystical background, had a difficult time accepting her identity. John, Sarah, and Henry were simple folk—not simple minded, but grounded in what they could see and feel and taste. Yet they had their faith and they believed in dreams. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be more than halfway to Oregon. What would she do if they wouldn’t let her teach Frances and Elizabeth? She swallowed, trying to conceal the ache and flutter of fear.
Was there any place she truly belonged? Now was not the time to worry about herself. She turned to the spectators. “I’m going to use instruments and procedures you haven’t seen before. Please be patient. I’ll explain everything later.” Her friends were probably too worried about Adam to care about instruments and procedures. She took a deep, steadying breath.
“John. Henry. You hold Adam’s legs. I don’t think he’ll move, but if he does, try to hold him still. Sarah, you stand on the other side and hold his hand.” They shuffled into position, wearing pinched expressions.
Cullen cleared the table, and Kit opened a suture set. “I’ll need you to hold the spoke while I cut around it.”
Adam attempted his usual cock-eyed grin. “Is it bad, Miss Kit?”
“I don’t know yet. How’s your pain?”
“Not bad.” His eyes told her the pain was less severe, but still palpable.
“No one will think less of you if you vocalize your discomfort.” She whispered in his ear. “Scream if you have to.”
“Do they scream in Mr. Shakespeare’s plays?”
“I’m sure if they had a sword stuck in their side, they’d let someone know.”
He squeezed his ma’s hand until her knuckles turned white.
“I’m going to put a needle in your arm. Don’t be alarmed.” Henry and John whispered to each other as Kit started an IV. “You’ll have to ask Cullen to tell you the story about when I did this to him.”
Cullen patted Adam’s shoulder. “It’ll be all right, son.”
“I’m going to cut around the spoke. Cullen will hold it steady until I’m ready to take it out. How’s the pain?”
“Don’t feel much.” His face shone with nervous perspiration. As she’d discovered with Cullen, modern pain medication seemed to take effect more quickly in nineteenth-century patients.
“I’m going to put a tourniquet around your upper thigh to slow the bleeding so I can see what happened to you.”
Cullen donned gloves, and stood at her side to assist. “Will you hand me the surgical knife?” she asked.
He held up the scalpel. “This?”
Kit nodded, and he placed the instrument in her hand. She took a deep breath and checked the tourniquet. “Hold the tip of the spoke, easy.” She cut through Adam’s skin, extending the edges of the wound. “Sponge.” Cullen placed the gauze in Kit’s hand. “Now pull, slowly.” The spoke came out. It had embedded deeper than an inch into his groin and severed a vessel. Not the femoral artery. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Will you wipe my forehead, please?”
“With the gauze?”
She needed to tie off both ends of the vessel. She tightened the tourniquet. “Catgut and needle.” Cullen’s hand shook as he handed Kit what she requested.
“Can you fix it?” he asked.
“No,” she said, with calm deliberateness. “But I can tie it off. He’ll lose the vessel but he’s got others to carry blood to his leg.”
“Adam, do you need anything?” Cullen asked.
Adam’s fingers tapped against the sheet to a cadence only he could hear.
“Do you want Cullen to read to you?” Kit asked.
“If’n he’ll read Midsummer’s Night Dream.” Adam’s voice was low, trembling.
In his sonorous voice, Cullen began to recite, “Act 1, Scene 1. Athens. The palace of Theseus.”
She glanced at her husband and a throb of affection raced through her.
An hour later, Kit finished stitching and dressing the wound. Color slowly returned to Adam’s foot and ankle, and the pulse grew stronger. Exhausted by the ordeal, he drifted off to sleep, his face no longer taut from fighting pain.
The inside of the tent resembled an operating room. Bloody sponges were tossed haphazardly on the table, along with the instruments Kit had used to put Adam back together.
Sarah’s soft sobs filled the air with a mother’s quiet relief. John and Henry lit their pipes.
“As long as his pulse stays strong,” Kit said, “we can hope for the best.”
Adam’s brothers, Ben and Case, slipped into the tent. “How is he?”
“We’ll know more in a few hours,” Kit said.
“We made coffee,” Ben said.
John turned to him. “Thanks, son. Bring in some chairs, too. We need to sit a spell.”
Five tense people sat on the edge of their chairs, drinking coffee, watching Adam breathe, and all waiting for something to happen. Henry leaned forward, elbows on his knees, wearing a no-nonsense expression. “I believe you owe us an explanation, missy.”
Cullen gave her a silent nod of encouragement. She cleared her throat and crossed her hands in her lap. He tented his hands, which she noticed shook slightly.
“What Kit is about to tell you may be more than you’re wanting to hear. Listen to her with your heart. If you try to listen with your mind, you won’t understand.” He paused, laid his hand over hers, warm and reassuring. “Go on, lass. Tell them who you are.”
She cleared her throat again, and laced her fingers with his. “I was raised believing my name was Kitherina Mary MacKlenna. I discovered that wasn’t my real name only weeks before I left my home in the twenty-first century—”
They gasped, then her friends fell silent and still. For the next thirty minutes, they listened. Occasionally, they asked questions. Cullen interjected his own disbelief and confusion, and he explained how he finally came to accept Kit’s identity.
“If Kit had told this story weeks ago, we would have set her on the side of the road,” John said. “I’m not sure we wouldn’t have done the same this morning, even with you speaking on her behalf, Cullen. But after watching her work on the boy, I have no doubt she is who she says she is.” John glanced at Henry then at his wife. There seemed to be silent agreement among them.
John continued. “It’s best if we put your other life behind us. Once we leave this tent, we’ll never mention the subject again. We’ll never ask you about your home. Not that we aren’t curious, but the future is not meant for us to know.”
“I respect that, John,” she said.
“You’ve been teaching the little ones about voting for women. I won’t object to you teaching subjects they need to learn. I will object if you teach subjects they don’t have a right to know.” He paused. “Do we have an understanding?”
She took a deep breath, nodded, then relaxed against Cullen.
John turned to the rest. “Do you have anything to say, Sarah—? Henry—?”
Henry tapped the bowl of his pipe against his palm. “I said all that needs saying the day I walked you down the aisle.
Sarah stood and laid hands on Kit. Heat seeped into her skin, her soul, her heart. “You were misplaced for some reason, but Frances called you home for just such a time as this.”
Kit buried her face in Cullen’s shirt and sobbed. How could they still love her and forgive her after all she’d done to deceive them?
He wrapped her in the warmth of his arms. “Shh. We’re your family now.”
She wasn’t sure that was such a good thing. In her lifetime, she’d already lost two.
WHILE CULLEN MADE rounds, Kit walked along the quiet shore reflecting on all that had happened. The memory of Cullen reciting Midsummer’s Night Dream would remain embedded in her heart for a lifetime. His powerful voice brought the poetry to life, but it also brought calmness to her spirit and enabled her to do abundantly more than she ever imagined she could.
“I’ve been searching for you,” he said.
She laced her arm with his. “Did you look in on Adam?”
“I stopped at the Barretts first.”
“Both color and pulses are improving,” she said.
He patted her hand. “You’re a miracle worker.”
“I couldn’t have done the procedure without you.”
“You’re stronger than you think.”
They walked without speaking, welcoming the calm of the late-night hour.
“I’m so relieved John and Sarah and Henry know the truth. I hated deceiving them.”
A grin pulled at the corners of Cullen’s mouth. “You had no such compunction with me.”
“You’ll never forgive me, will you?”
He kissed the top of her head. “I forgave you before I asked you to marry me.”
In her heart, she had experienced the warmth of his forgiveness. If he could forgive her, if Henry, Sarah, and John could forgive her, then she should forgive her parents and Elliott. She no longer had the nagging ache in her gut and the emptiness in her soul. Soon, she would be a mother, and like her parents, she would do whatever she had to do to protect her child.
The time had come to forgive them. And while she was in a forgiving mood, she might as well forgive herself, too.
THE WAGON TRAIN approached the base of Flagstaff Hill, heading toward the Lone Tree and the Powder River. Kit and Cullen rode to the summit and dismounted. She peered out toward the horizon, relieved to have survived the monotonous trip from the Snake River through shoulder-high sagebrush.
“They say the optimist sees the magnificent lush green Baker Valley.”
“And what does the pessimist see?” Cullen asked.
“Those,” she said, pointing toward the snow-capped Blue Mountains etched against the dusk.” She entwined an arm around his waist and they watched the wagons roll westward across the valley. “I found a quote by Yeats in my dad’s notes. ‘I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’”
He kissed her. “I’d never tread on your dreams. I want to be one of them.”
“A ghost and now a dream? You certainly have high expectations.”
“I have only one expectation at the moment—fulfillment of a promise you made.” His murmur trailed down her neck.
She gave him a saucy smile. “And I intend to deliver.” She pulled him to the ground, wanting him with an incomprehensible madness. As the flaming sun drifted below the horizon, he entered her in a smoky haze of heat.