KIT SAT AT the supper table looking out over LaBonte Creek and the meadow beyond. Since leaving Fort Laramie four days earlier, the wagon train had added another eighty miles to their seven hundred in seven weeks. From the beginning, she knew the trip would be tough, but the trail’s hardships had been only part of the danger.
She’d just finished the last bite on her plate when Cullen and Henry walked up to the Barretts’s camp.
“Still some stew left,” John said. “Y’all hungry.”
“Ate at the Camerons, but thanks,” Cullen said.
Sarah held up the coffee pot. “How about coffee?”
“Cain’t never get enough of that,” Henry said.
John pointed toward the table. “Welcome to sit.”
Cullen sat. Kit stood. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’m going to help Frances with her lessons.” As she left the table, Cullen eyes settled on hers with a heated, disturbing gaze. A trickle of sweat dripped between her breasts. The breasts he had touched.
Don’t go there, Kit.
Why couldn’t they enjoy each other’s company? Their time together would be so short. Just as well, really. This was the wrong time and the wrong place. But he was the right man.
She turned in early and tossed for hours, much as she did every night. Finally, she drifted off to sleep.
“Kit, we need you.” Cullen’s whispering invaded her dream.
She rolled over and snuggled deeper into the feather mattress, into him, into their embrace.
“Kit,” he said louder. Then he knocked on the side of her wagon, bringing her fully awake.
“Folks are sick. We need you.”
“I’m coming.” She rolled out of bed and into her trousers and boots with the same efficiency she’d learned at the firehouse. Then she tossed a dress over her head and gathered her hair into a ponytail that she tied with a strip of rawhide.
Folks are sick. We need you.
With her shawl pulled tightly around her shoulders to ward off the middle-of-the-night chill, she hurried to find Cullen and discover what new danger they faced. Halfway around the circle of wagons, she heard a buzz of voices.
“Are you sure?” Cullen asked.
“Looks it to me,” Henry said. “Seen the sickness before.”
Kit found Henry, Cullen, and Braham at the Dunns’ wagon. “What’s wrong?”
“Henry thinks it’s cholera,” Cullen said.
This is not good. She glanced down at Mr. Dunn. The emaciated man lay on a pallet, his head in his wife’s lap. If he had cholera, the wagon train faced a powerful enemy. She had no gloves, so she shoved her hands in her pockets so she wouldn’t be tempted to touch anything as she knelt beside the ailing man. Shriveled skin, sunken eyes. He was dying. How long has he been like this?” she asked Mrs. Dunn.
“He’s been getting worse since supper.”
“What time is it, Cullen?” Kit asked.
He opened his pocket watch and peered at it in the low moonlight. “Three o’clock.”
Eight hours, more or less. “Do you have vomiting and diarrhea, too?”
The woman pushed damp hair off her face. “I just started feeling poorly.”
“What about your children?” Kit braced for the answer she didn’t want to hear.
“The two older girls are complaining,” Mrs. Dunn said.
“Has your husband had any food or water?”
“Can’t keep nothing down.”
“I’ll fix your family something to drink that might help.” Kit stood, motioned for the men to step away with her. They huddled out of earshot of the Dunns. “I agree with Henry. We have four probable cases of cholera. Anyone else sick?”
“We don’t know,” Cullen said.
“This could spread quickly,” Kit said.
Cullen glanced at the dying man. “What can we do for him?”
“I’ll give him water mixed with sugar and salt. That’ll help.”
Henry scratched his whiskered cheek. “How do we keep it from spreading?”
Safe water and sanitation. “Did you touch him or Mrs. Dunn?” She looked each man in the eye. They looked at their hands then at each other.
“No,” Cullen said.
Henry shrugged. “I might have.”
“Don’t think so,” Braham said.
“Scrub your hands. Don’t eat, drink, or touch your mouth until you’ve done that. What about the Barretts? Do they know?”
Cullen shook his head. “No one else knows.”
She chewed on her lower lip. In an hour folks would be up moving about. “I’m going to make an oral rehydration solution. You three go around camp. See if anyone else is sick?”
“We should move the Dunns away from camp,” Henry said.
Kit shook her head. “Wait. Let’s see how many sick we’ve got first. If it’s only them, we can contain it.”
The men disbursed, and Kit hurried to her wagon. Within minutes, she had fed the campfire and put on a pot of water to boil. She added a three-finger pinch of salt and a two-finger scoop of sugar to the gently rolling water. The solution worked in third-world countries. No reason it shouldn’t work in Wyoming.
When the drink was ready, she poured the mixture into a canteen and carried it to the Dunn’s, but she was too late. Mrs. Dunn had fallen into a stupor. Kit tried to get her to drink, but she was distraught. The oldest daughter was awake so Kit left instructions with her, then hurried back to her camp to make another batch of the solution.
Henry’s tired, hunched form appeared in the fire’s flickering light, throwing grotesque shadows onto the bushes behind him.
“What’d you find?” she asked.
“At least ten people have symptoms.”
She took a deep breath before she asked, “What about the Barretts?”
Cullen appeared in the circle of light. “I woke John to let him know. He checked his family. None of them show any signs.”
“If we have ten sick, we’ll have more in a few hours. I need help making the solution.”
“Sarah’s on her way,” Cullen said.
Henry removed his hat and finger-combed his thinning hair. “What do you want us to do?”
“For now, tell folks we’re making medicine. And ask them to please wash their hands.”
THE HEALTHY FOLKS didn’t get much rest over the next three days. They set up hand-washing stations around camp and dug latrines in an effort to contain the disease. Kit didn’t sleep, didn’t eat. Eight people died, four of them children. Each death took a chunk of her soul. A large chunk.
John confined Elizabeth and Frances to their wagon, and Kit tied Tabor and Tate up with them. After two days, all four were gnawing on their restraints, but Kit refused to let them out. She stopped by the wagon to check on them. “Do you need anything?” she asked.
“Frances isn’t back,” Elizabeth said. Her face clouded with worried. “She went to the bushes.”
“I’ll check on her.” Kit stomped over to the bushes not twenty feet from the wagon. Frances wasn’t there. Kit moved quickly around camp asking folks if they’d seen the child. Everyone assumed she was in the wagon.
Barely able to stand from exhaustion, Kit circled camp, looking under and around the wagons. Every muscle in her body ached from the constant bending and lifting.
Circling back around, she spotted the eight freshly dug graves. A pile of calico rags littered the graves. “That’s odd.” She walked closer, then her step grew still.
“Dear God, no.”
She fell to her knees beside the pile of rags. But, it wasn’t a pile of rags at all. It was Frances.
Muddy tears formed tracks down the child’s puckered, silver-blue tinted face. The skin on her pudgy hands had shriveled. Her cold wrinkled fingers resembled those of an old washerwoman, and her eyes sunk deep into her sockets.
Kit didn’t know she had a heart left to break, but she heard the crunch, the splinter, the blast. She hugged Frances to her breast. “We’re going home. I won’t let you die, but you’ve got to hold on.” Had it only been a few months since she’d made the same plea of Scott? But she had failed him. She wouldn’t fail Frances too.
She punched her fist skyward. “You can’t take her. I won’t let you.”
Then she bundled Frances in her arms and ran back toward camp. Home. She was going home.
“Kit.” She barely heard Cullen for the blood pounding in her ears. She brushed past him, but he grabbed her arm and whipped her around to face him. “Frances?”
“I’m taking her home.” She yanked from his grasp.
He locked her arm in a tighter grip. “She needs the special water.”
“Look at her,” Kit hissed. “The solution won’t help.”
“You’re not taking her anywhere except to your wagon.” His eyes turned icy. “You’re the only one who can save her. You saved me. You can save Frances.”
“Let me go!” She tried to jerk her arm free again, but his fingers were five fiery vices searing her with heat. “Her heart can’t supply enough blood to her body. I can’t save her. Going to the hospital is her only chance.”
“If you can’t save her, she’ll die.” He spoke in the slow, emphatic tone of a man who understood consequences. “Is that what you want?”
“The doctors can save her. I can’t.”
He pressed his hands against the sides of her face. “Pull yourself together. Now.” He took Frances from her arms and dragged Kit to her wagon. He lifted her up onto the tailgate and jumped up beside her. After laying the child on the bed, he blocked Kit’s retreat with the force of his will and the strength of his body.
“Get your red bag and put medicine into her arm,” he said with barely controlled fury. “You think I don’t know what you did to me? You think I didn’t see the bag and the needles? You think I didn’t hear the pops and snaps of whatever you did? I don’t know who you are or where you came from. You could be a witch for all I know. But you have the power to save this child, and that’s what you’re going to do.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I’m not asking anything. I’m demanding. After you save her life, you can get on your damn horse and ride the hell out of here.” He grabbed her arms and shook her. “Do you hear me?”
Tired but not deaf, she pushed him aside, her heart hammering. “Move. I need room to work. You need to wait outside.”
“I’m not leaving.” His face shut, hiding his anger below the surface.
Frances’s pulse beat dangerously low. Kit considered the consequences of treating the child with twenty-first century medicine. The treatment would force Kit to reveal where she came from and ultimately send her home, but Frances was more important than what Kit hoped to accomplish during her trip to the past. She was in the nineteenth century because the child had pulled her there, maybe for this moment, maybe to save her life.
Kit had accessed the medical database stored on her iPhone several times in the past few days. The battery was running low. She turned it on and checked doses. When she set it aside, she noticed Cullen pick it up, but she didn’t have time to deal with him.
She laid out her supplies, put on latex gloves, and started an IV to deliver 30 ml of Ringer’s lactate in thirty minutes, then another 70 ml in the next two hours. In the meantime, she’d try to get her to drink some rehydration salt solution.
“That’s what you did to me.”
She didn’t answer.
“How’d you learn to do that?”
For the next two hours, they sat in silence while Kit continued the IV and gave Frances sips of the ORS. Her blood pressure rose as she rehydrated. She remained very sick but improving. It would take four to six hours to rehydrate and the vomiting to stop.
She turned to Cullen who had hovered over her. “Will you tell John and Sarah that Frances is getting better? But ask them to give me a couple more hours with her before they come in.”
“Do I have your word you won’t run off?”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Yet.
He left her with a hard thud in her heart, his absence now as painful as his presence had been. He would never hold her or kiss her again. She wanted not to care, but it was too late for that.
She gave Frances a bath, and while she slept, Kit cleaned up the sick bay, repacked the red bag, and put everything away. Then she stripped and bathed herself. If only she could wipe away the heartache as easily as the germs.
Frances’s vital signs were all good and showing continued improvement. Kit was cautiously relieved. She closed her eyes to rest for a few minutes.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” Cullen startled her awake with a voice that cracked like a whip. She flinched from the verbal flogging and stared at him through dry, scratchy eyes.
He struck a match and lit the lantern sitting on a small table.
Not now, please not now. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eye sockets and held them in place for a few seconds. Under normal conditions, the darkness had a way of revitalizing her, but she was past the point of quick fixes.
“Kit.” He shook her shoulder.
“I need sleep.” She studied the tight brackets at the corners of his mouth. If he insisted on a conversation now, there would be nothing to salvage later.
“We’ll talk now.” He locked her in a death stare. Her throat closed. He stepped toward her, controlling the moment with authority. As soon as she told him what he wanted to know, he would turn on her as he had done before, slashing with razor sharp words. She rubbed the scars on her neck. A heated silence hung in the air while she checked the sleeping child’s vitals and summoned much needed courage.
She edged past him to the back of the wagon and threw open the flaps. Drifting clouds scuttled across the crescent-shaped moon. The air above the smoky campfires seemed thicker than usual. An eerie stillness sounded across the plains.
How did she reach this moment? In all her planning, she had never considered she would have to tell someone where she came from. He would never believe her.
“Weeks ago,” she began, searching for the right words, “you told me when the light of the day joins the light of the night mystical encounters between the visible and invisible world occur.” She paused and shot him a pleading glance.
“Spit it out,” he said with an acerbic tone.
“My home is in the twenty-first century.”
He jerked as if he’d been pierced with a poison-tipped lance.
She picked up a discarded IV bag she’d left on the table. “Look at this.” She shoved it in his face and pointed to the expiration date. “What does that say? I have more evidence. Do you want to see it?” She threw the bag on the floor and collapsed on the end of the bed.
He picked up the bag and glared with a look of distain. “What are you?”
She placed her hand over her mouth to contain a distressed gasp. Only in horror flicks did aliens take over human bodies. She wasn’t an alien or a monster.
“What are you?” Lips that had kissed her passionately, now thinned to a hard unhesitating line.
“What do you think I am?”
His eyes narrowed into slits. “Don’t answer my question with a question. Who are you? What are you?”
Hold it together for a few more minutes. Just a few more minutes. “I’m a woman who knows a little bit about a lot of things, but not enough to answer your questions. I don’t know who I am. That’s why I’m here.”
His eyebrows furrowed. His hands closed around her shoulders, squeezing muscle against bone. “No more riddles. Tell me who you are then take your red bag full of magic and your menagerie and go back to where you belong.” His words held the stinging power of a thousand wasps.
Tears pushed into her eyes. “I have a magical brooch. It opened the door to your time, and I passed through.”
He laughed a dark, ominous laugh. “I saw your brooch, even thought it was mystical, but open a door to another time—impossible.”
Silence filled the wagon with an impenetrable cloud of doubt. If only she could say more to help him understand. In the face of disbelief, words proved inadequate.
He stood, sneering. They were two people standing on opposite sides of a chasm with a frayed, irreparable rope between them. Without another word, he left, and the last fiber holding the rope together snapped.