THE WAGON TRAIN was camped in the meadow at Three Crossings when Braham reached a new level of suspicion that something had happened between Cullen and Kit. In fifteen years, his friend had never been private or reluctant to share his thoughts. Until now. Did I do the right thing not telling Cul about Abigail? If he told him now, Braham would land smack in the teeth of a gale. He’d battled worse storms before. The time had come to batten down the hatches and confess.
He rounded the circle of wagons and spotted Cullen sitting at their campsite reading by the light of a lamp perched on the small table at his elbow. This might be my best opportunity. He pulled up a chair next to his friend, sat, and threw one leg over the other. “Sarah invited us for a slice of Kit’s apple pie.”
Cullen’s chair creaked as he shifted his weight. “I’m not hungry.”
“How could you not be hungry for pie?”
Cullen puffed on his cigar, sending the rich tobacco’s fragrance into the air between them. He turned the page, much too quickly to be reading. “Leave it alone, Braham.”
Cullen removed his spectacles and pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose. A look of pain traveled across his face, and Braham almost regretted intruding. Almost. Gathering his thoughts he said, “I could help.”
Cullen closed the book, carressing the cover. “I told you. Leave it alone.”
Braham let go a philosophical sigh, an unlit cheroot poking from the corner of his mouth. “I’ll ask again tomorrow. I’m not going to quit.”
“I’m heading out in the morning.”
Braham swallowed back an uneasy sense of guilt that had formed a fist around his throat. “Then I’m going, too.”
Cullen gave Braham a speculative look. “Suit yourself. I’m leaving before sunup.”
That went well.
BRAHAM AND CULLEN camped at Rocky Ridge, a stony formation flanking both sides of the Sweetwater River. Braham couldn’t sleep. Instead of tossing about, he sat by the river and skipped rocks, pondering the predicament he’d put himself in with all the best of intentions.
He stomped back to his bedroll, rubbing the nasty ache in his arm. “Cullen, you asleep?”
“Yep.” Cullen’s black hat covered his face, and his fingers lay knitted on his chest.
“You got something weighing on your mind, and I got something to tell you,” Braham said.
Cullen unlaced his fingers and tossed his hat aside. “Sounds like we need some of that good old Pennsylvania rye whiskey. If you’re wanting to talk, then I’m sure you’ve got a bottle to share. He emptied the coffee dregs from his cup. “Fill it up and tell me what needs telling.”
Braham shook his head. “The rule’s always been that the one with the whiskey gets his choice—first or last.” He took a bottle from his saddlebag and poured the liquor into their empty coffee cups. “You go first.”
“What do you want to know?”
“What happened with Kit?”
A line of pain lanced across Cullen’s face, and Braham felt sorry for his friend.
“Not sure you’ve got enough in that bottle to hear it all,” Cullen said.
“I brought two.”
Cullen scrubbed his face, letting out a long sigh. Then he pulled something out of his saddlebag and handed it to Braham. “I picked that up off the floor in Kit’s wagon. There’s a date on the bottom corner.”
Braham moved closer to the fire and studied the writing on the clear rubber-like material. “Expires seven slash two thousand twelve. What’s it mean?”
“Just what it says.”
Braham flicked his hat back with a snap of his finger and let out a long whistle. “I don’t understand.”
Cullen sipped from his cup. “When the Barrett girl got sick, Kit started talking crazy, saying she was taking the child to the hospital. I told Kit she was the only one who could save Frances and that she had to put medicine in the child’s arm just like she did to me.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“You wouldn’t have believed me.”
“That’s no reason—”
“Kit attached a needle to that bag you’re holding,” Cullen interrupted. “It was full of medicine. Then she put the needle into the child’s arm. I asked her who she was and where she came from.”
“She said she didn’t know who she was, but that she came from the twenty-first century.”
Braham turned up his cup and drank until it was empty. “I don’t believe it.”
“I didn’t believe it either. Then she told me she’d discovered a letter from her dead father telling her she’d been found on his doorstep as an infant—”
Braham smirked. “I called her a changeling.”
“You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It meant she wasn’t my cousin.”
“You should have told me.”
“Probably,” Braham clamped his mouth shut, and looked away.
“Her father found her with a ruby brooch pinned to her dress. Kit says it has magic, and allows a person to pass through a door to another time.”
Braham tossed the rubber bag to Cullen. “With a horse and a dog and a cat. How?”
“She didn’t say.”
“Why’s she here?” Braham refilled his cup. Then he checked the amount of alcohol left in the bottle. There wasn’t enough for this story.
“She’s looking for her family.”
“If she finds what she’s looking for, will she go back to her century?”
Cullen sat still for an unmeasured time. Finally he said, “I can’t stop her.”
“She can’t leave.”
He shook his head, sighing. “If I’ve learned one thing about the woman, she can do damn near anything she wants.”
“You have to convince her to stay.”
Cullen looked regretful. “Until I settle things with Abigail…”
Braham hung his head. “I’ve got something to tell you, Cul.”
Cullen stared, holding his cup inches from his mouth, waiting.
“Abigail—” Braham gulped. “—died this past spring. She fell off her horse.” He braced for the punch he expected Cullen to throw. A punch he well deserved.
Cullen jumped to his feet, spilling his whiskey. “How do you know?”
“I got a letter.”
“There was a telegram from Mr. Phillips with the letter from my father.”
“The letter you got at Fort Laramie?” Cullen balled his hands into fists and stepped toward Braham. “You’ve known since then, and you didn’t tell me.” His voice grated past his throat. He punched the air. “How could you keep that from me?”
Being hit with a two-handed broadsword wouldn’t have hurt Braham any more than the pain he saw in his friend’s face. “I was wrong.”
“If I hadn’t taken the wagon train job, I’d have been in California. She wouldn’t have died.”
“You couldn’t have saved your sister or Abigail. Kristen hit her head. But you forget that part so you can blame yourself. Abigail hit her head too. If you’d been in San Francisco, you couldn’t have changed the outcome.”
“You don’t know that, and you were wrong for not telling me.” He kicked dirt at the flames that nipped at his toes. “You were damn wrong.” Cullen turned away from Braham and walked to the river where he threw off his clothes and dived into the water.
Braham started to go after his friend, but instead he sat and watched to make sure Cullen didn’t drown.
I don’t know how I can make this up to you, but I will. Somehow, someway, someday.
AT DAYLIGHT, CULLEN walked into camp as Braham was pulling on his boots. “You’re up early.”
“Tell Henry I’m going to California to see Mr. Phillips and pay my respects. I’ll meet you in San Francisco by year’s end,” Cullen said.
Braham jumped up and stabbed the air with his finger. “You leave, I’m leaving too.”
“You shouldn’t have lied to me, Braham.”
He dragged his hands down his face covered with whiskers and lined with sleep. “I didn’t lie to you.”
Cullen pumped his fist at him. “Withholding the truth isn’t as bad as lying because your motives weren’t malicious. Is that it?”
“We don’t need to debate the criminalization of acts of omission.”
Cullen saddled Jasper. “I’d appreciate it if you’d help Henry.”
“Damn it.” Braham picked up his saddle. “You’re doing exactly what I thought you’d do. That’s why I didn’t tell you. You don’t need to be running off to California. You need to be making things right with Kit. She’s the first woman you’ve ever respected. First woman you’ve ever loved. I know you bedded her. I’m not an imbecile. That’s why you’re eaten up with guilt. God, Cul, she could be carrying your child. Marry her.”
Cullen wondered if there was any whiskey left. “She won’t marry me. She’s going home.”
“Well then, go with her.”
He sucked in a shuddering breath.
Braham squeezed his shoulder. “I’m leaving the wagon train soon, heading to San Francisco. I’ll see Phillips. I’ll tell him how you’re feeling. He’s a good man. He’ll understand.”
Cullen’s gut twisted with grief. Although he hadn’t loved Abigail, he was fond of her. She would have been a good wife and mother. His father still grieved the death of his sister, and he prayed Mr. Phillips would find a way to cope with his loss. Braham was right though. Phillips was a gracious man and would understand.
The morning air smelled of sweet wildflowers. It reminded Cullen of a simpler time when he and Braham were lads and the consequences of their actions weren’t as life-changing.
Cullen gazed at the sunrise that never failed to humble him, then looked into his friend’s strained face. The truth hit him hard. His life would never be what he wanted without Kit by his side. The last vestiges of his life’s plan give way to his heart’s desire.
But even his heart’s desire needed a plan. He would propose to Kit. If she said no, he’d steal the brooch and hold it ransom until she changed her mind. Not much of a plan, but until he came up with something better, it was the only one he had.