Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Ruby Brooch Chapter Twenty-Five

KIT KNEW BEFORE she left MacKlenna Farm that she’d find dead people in South Pass.  The same quiet tension she’d experienced as a paramedic racing through Lexington’s streets en route to an accident infused her with a concentrated focus. She always expected the worst. This time was no different.

The miasma of death hit her nostrils mere seconds before she saw ten bullet-ridden human corpses. Eight men, two women, no children. The site was a bloody crime scene. The victims had been gathered and massacred together. The savagery was incomprehensible. Kit’s stomach roiled at the huge pools of congealed blood. Her mind tried to compartmentalize. She needed to see the scene through her professional lens, only peripherally through a personal one. But that would take a minute or two or five or maybe not at all.

Was her birth mother one of the bloodied women? Her birth father one of the bloodied men? She inched her fingers inside her blouse and fondled the locket around her neck. Why had some demented person stolen their dreams and robbed them of their hopes? She tried to piece the puzzle together, to get a clear picture in her mind, but the effort manifested in a whirl of confusion.

Cullen dismounted amidst a roar of flies. A blue vein pulsed in his temple. His hand caressed the handle of his holstered Colt canting over his hip. Eyes alert, searching. He looped Jasper’s reins through the spokes of a wheel on one of the six wagons chained together. The smashed grass indicated animals had been in the corral, but they were gone now.

Kit untied her neck scarf and wrapped it around her nose and mouth, filtering the omnipresent dust sticking to every surface, even her sweat covered body.

Look at their faces.

She swallowed hard, unsure of herself. There was an awkward tumble of her heartbeat as she dismounted and stepped toward the dead people. Until this moment, they were only words on a page she’d found in Frances’s journal. Now the scene unfolded, frame by frame, in a grotesque silent movie.

She smelled them. Saw them. Heard their phantom screams. 

Then, one-by-one, she approached each male corpse and looked into the rictus of horror on his face and the pain in his terror-filled eyes.

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

The man in the portrait miniature was not among them. Relief swarmed through her stinging every nerve with pinpoint precision. Why was she relieved? Now she’d never identify the man. But that seemed easier to accept than the fact he’d been rounded up and butchered like an animal.

A storm grew in her mind of hurricane proportions. She needed to go to work and let the hurricane stall out over the desert until later, until she got home and mixed the pain and trauma in with all the rest.

She gazed at Cullen. He caressed her briefly with eyes so blue they bordered on purple. She nodded, answering his unspoken question. I’m okay.

Kit swung her arms in an encompassing gesture. “Please don’t touch anything until I can get pictures. I want to document what happened here.”

“We don’t have time for you to sketch.” Cullen spoke without looking at her, his eyes intense with thought.

“I’m not.” She grabbed a digital camera from her saddlebag. “You told Braham about me, didn’t you?”

He swept his gloved hand across her cheek. “He knows.”

She stood frozen a moment, then shrugged.

Cullen pointed at her camera. “What's that?”

“I’ll explain later.” She took a discriminating turn around the crime scene, snapping pictures of scattered clothing and bedding, opened burlap bags, overturned furniture, flour dumped into white piles. The murderers had thoroughly searched the wagons, but for what? Pouches of gold nuggets? She tried to make sense of the senselessness.

“What do you suppose they were looking for?” Braham asked.

Cullen removed his hat and swiped his arm across his forehead. “The question is did they find it?”

“Let me get pictures inside the wagons then you can gather up Bibles, letters, journals, anything that might help identify them. Then we’ll bury them.”

The wagons were easy to photograph. But later, as each face came into the frame, the shock weighed her down. The camera became too heavy to hold, and the air too thick to breathe.

Kit closed her eyes, blocking out the scene, but she saw it all through closed lids. Ten weeks she’d spent in the nineteenth century and traveled a thousand miles to take one picture. She had dozens now. But not the one she had framed in her mind. Not the one she had set out to take.

Cullen and Braham proceeded through the crime scene, climbing in and out of the wagons and searching pockets. When they finished, she went back to each wagon and took more photographs. That’s when she spotted a cradle. Every muscle in her body fibrillated. She crossed her arms, held them close, and waited for the rapid twitching to stop.

After a few moments, her body relaxed but the mingled apprehension and bafflement remained. She poked her head around the corner of the wagon. “Cullen.” He shifted his gaze from the buzzards flying lazy circles in the sky. “There’s a cradle in this wagon but there’s no sign of a baby. Have you seen a grave?” She heard the waffle in her voice.

Cullen wore an expression of intense concentration. “No.”

“Where’s Braham? Maybe he found one.”

“He left a while ago to water the horses and put on some coffee. He thought we’d want to talk before we told the others what we found here.”

She glanced back at the cradle. It didn’t make sense. Both women had multiple chest wounds, as did the men. All ten would have died instantly. None of them could have wrapped a baby in a bloody shawl and sent the infant through time. So what did that mean?

“I’m through here. Are you?” Cullen asked.

“I’ve seen enough,” she said.

He offered his arm. Maybe he noticed her trembling. Maybe he sensed it, but she knew she couldn’t walk without support. If he said anything else to her, she didn’t hear him. She heard only the sweep of their boots through the tall grass as they walked the short distance to Braham’s campfire and a cup of strong, black coffee.

The earth was quiet now. It no longer rumbled, but she imagined it did way down deep below the surface. She removed her scarf, eased to the ground, and sipped the coffee Braham handed her.

Cullen sat and placed a burlap sack of the items he and Braham had collected on the grass between them. Kit emptied it onto the ground and spread the contents out. There were four Bibles, three journals, and two stacks of letters tied with black ribbons. She took a shivery breath, opened a Bible, and read aloud from the dedication page. “Kenneth and Jean Murray married in Springfield, Illinois, February 16, 1851. Heather Marie Murray, born May 1, 1852.”

Kit closed the Bible, her hands cold and shaky. “Where is Heather now?”

Cullen removed his gloves and dusted his hands, then picked up a stack of letters and untied the ribbon. “Probably didn’t survive.”

“Why didn’t they enter her date of death?”

“Maybe the baby died yesterday. Maybe last week. We don’t know. Probably never will.”

Braham turned to them. “Why would someone murder these folks?”

Maybe they were looking for gold. Kit had the sensation of scrambling for purchase on a rocky ledge, battered, bruised, and bloodied.

Hold on for a little while longer.

Cullen squeezed her hand. “I’m here, lass.” He gazed at her, but she avoided his eyes. After a moment, he tilted her chin, forcing her to look at him. “I’ve seen this look before. You know something about this, don’t you?”

She didn’t reply for a long moment. Then, she said, “It’s why I’m here.”

“Who’d you come to see?”

“The Murrays.”

“I’m sorry they’re dead, lass.”

She hooded her eyes. “I knew they would be.”

“You came here to find dead people?”

When she opened her mouth to answer, Cullen placed two fingers against her lips. “Tell me anything, but don’t tell me it’s complicated.”

She licked her lips and caught his finger in the sweep of her tongue. He dropped his hand. What will he say when he finds out I came looking for him? “A journal written by Frances Barrett—”

“John’s little girl?” Braham asked.

“Yes.” She followed her answer with a thin smile. “Frances’s journal was or will be discovered in Portland, Oregon. Most of it unreadable. But an entry dated June 16, 1852—”

“That’s today,” Cullen said.

She squeezed his hand. “The entry says—” Kit stopped and took a breath. “—June 16, 1852 South Pass. Mr. Montgomery found a bloody mess. All murdered on Murray wagon train. Murray baby girl missing.’”

Cullen’s jaw dropped. “You knew of me before we met? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what? That I came back in time to meet you so you’d take me to South Pass to find a wagon train full of dead people? What would you have done?”

“I might have been able to stop what happened.”

“No, you would’ve gotten yourself killed.”

“I don’t understand what this has to do with you?”

“I thought the Murrays might be my birth parents.” The idea suddenly seemed ludicrous. Had she put two-and-two together, come up with ten, and convinced herself it was four? She toyed with the portrait miniature hanging around her neck from a gilt chain.

Cullen sat motionless except for a stress tic in his jaw. Then, a chilly response: “Explain, please.”

“Based on the journal and other information I had, I believed there was a good possibility I was their baby.”

Braham stepped up to them. “I don’t need to be hornin’ in here—”

“Then don’t,” Cullen said, glaring at him. He turned to Kit. “What’s your evidence?”

“The letter from my father said that when he found me I had the brooch, a blood-splattered lace shawl with a monogrammed M, and a portrait miniature. At first, I thought the M stood for MacKlenna. After I read about the Murray’s missing baby, I thought it might stand for Murray. Since the Murrays were murdered, I assumed that’s how blood got on the shawl.” 

“What else do you have?” Cullen asked.

“I made three assumptions. The bloody shawl belonged to my mother. My last name started with an M, and the man in the miniature portrait was my father.”

“What portrait?” Cullen asked.

She pulled the miniature from under her blouse.

“It’s a huge leap for you to assume you’re the Murray’s missing baby,” Cullen said.

“I agree.”

“You do?” 

“That’s why I decided to be here on June 16. If I could see the bodies, I would know if Mr. Murray and the man in the portrait were one in the same. I now know they aren’t, but I still don’t know who he is. Finding the bodies didn’t answer the question I needed answered.”

Cullen pointed to the portrait miniature. “May I see it?” 

Kit unclasped the chain and placed the jewelry in his palm. He studied the portrait with no visible change in expression. Then he handed the portrait to Braham.

Braham looked at the miniature. His face drained of color. “I’ve seen this man.”

“Where?” Cullen and Kit asked simultaneously.

“He was at the Phillips’s party.” Braham gave Cullen a thinking stare. “He came into the ballroom and spoke to Mr. Phillips, ten maybe fifteen minutes. Phillips welcomed him in a friendly manner, then he left. I wasn’t introduced so I don’t know his name. Didn’t you meet him?”

Cullen cleared his throat. “I met Abigail that night.”

Braham tugged on his lips. “I know this is the same man. He’s older now, probably approaching fifty, distinguished, impeccably dressed, carefully groomed. I assumed he was Phillips’s client, or a partner in one of his business ventures.” He handed the portrait back to Kit. “He’s alive. At least he was nine months ago. We’ll find him in San Francisco.”

“We?” She felt herself sliding down the side of the slippery ridge. “I can’t go to San Francisco. I have to go home. People are worried about me.”

“Send them a letter. Tell them you’ll be home in a few months,” Braham said, giving her a wisp of a smile.

“We don’t have to decide on our next steps right now. But we do need to bury the dead. We’ll talk about this later,” Cullen said.

“There’s nothing to talk about. You’re going to San Francisco to marry Abigail. I’m going home.”

A charged silenced passed among them.

“Abigail died in the spring before I met you. Braham told me yesterday.” The muscles tightened around his eyes. “He was afraid if he told me I’d run off to California.”

“Because he’d feel responsible,” Braham added.

She fixed Cullen with a serious gaze. “You feel responsible for everybody. That’s probably why you’ve haunted me since I was ten years old.”

His face turned more shades of gray than she could draw. “I’m not sure I want to hear this.”

“Well, I do.” Braham stretched out his legs and laced his hands behind his head as if expecting the reading of a massive tome. “Just out of curiosity, how many years has that been?”

“Fifteen years this November.”

“You were twelve, Cul. That was the year your sister died. How many times have you seen him as a ghost?”

“Dozens. But some I remember more than others because of what happened to me the same day. Like the sighting five years ago.”

Braham dropped his arms and leaned forward. “That’s when we decided to go to California. When was the next time you remember?”

“Six months ago.”

Braham removed a cigar from his pocket and pointed it at Cullen. “That’s when you and Mr. Phillips had the conversation about Abigail.”

“And the next.”

“Two months later,” Kit said.

“That’s when you decided not to go back to San Francisco, but stay and help Henry with the wagon train.”

“Are there any others you recall?” Cullen frowned, and his gaze turned inward.

“The day I left my century and met you in Independence,” she said.

“I wasn’t supposed to be in town. Henry and I planned to ride over to the Blue River, but decided against it early that morning.” His frown grew deeper.

“We know what Cullen was doing. What were you doing, Kit?”

The events unnerved her. “The first time I ever saw you was on my tenth birthday. I fell off my horse and broke my back. The doctors said I’d never walk again.”

“Next,” Cullen asked.

Her heart rate escalated with each memory, the significance of the timing more astounding. “You appeared at dawn on the day Wayne attacked me, and I remember seeing you the night my family died, and again the day I found the letter from my father.”

“And then again before you left your century,” Cullen said.

“That vision was different though. It was of you and Sean MacKlenna selecting Thomas’s gravesite on MacKlenna Farm. But Thomas doesn’t die until January 25, 1853. I don’t think you’ll be Kentucky in six months, do you?”

“Can’t see how that’s likely to happen.”

“That vision doesn’t fit the pattern at all,” Braham said.

“Do you want to meet Thomas MacKlenna before he dies?” Cullen asked.

“I’m not a MacKlenna. There’s no reason.”

“Then why did you see me there?”

The question hung in the air for a moment, and then she said, “We’ll probably never know.”

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