Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Daily's Science Fiction Chapter of the Day

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Science Fiction & Fantasy
Tuesday June 19, 2012

      Independence, Missouri, April 4, 1852

IN a sunlit corner of the cluttered Waldo, Hall & Company freight office, Cullen Montgomery sat tipped back on a chair’s spindly rear legs reading the newspaper and scratching a rough layer of morning whiskers.

Henry Peters slumped in a leather-reading chair and propped his legs, covered in faded cavalry pants, on a crate marked textiles and bound for Santa Fe. “What you learning ‘bout in that gazette?”

Cullen chuckled at what little real news the paper printed. Since he no longer lived in Edinburgh or Cambridge, he needed to lower his expectations when it came to the local press. Every word of the Independence Reporter had been read and reread, and although he couldn’t find mention of a scientific discovery or notice of a public discussion with a famous poet, he knew Grace McCoy had gotten hitched last Saturday. Reading the paper’s recitation was unnecessary. He’d escorted the bride’s widowed aunt to the nuptials and knew firsthand that the bride had swooned walking down the aisle. Virgin brides and widows. The former didn’t interest him, the latter lavishly entertained him.

He gave the last page a final perusal. “There's no mention of our wagon train pulling out in the morning.”

The old soldier took a pinch of tobacco between his thumb and forefinger and loaded the bowl of his presidential-face pipe. “We ain’t got no more room anyways. No sense advertising.”

The day had turned unusually warm, and Cullen had dressed for cooler weather. Sweat trickled down his back, prompting him to roll his red-flannel shirtsleeves to his elbows. “Mary Spencer’s not going now. We can take on one more family.”

Henry dropped his feet, and his boot heels scraped the heart-of-pine floor. “Dang. Why’d you bring up that gal’s name?”

“It’s not your fault she disappeared.” Although Cullen hadn’t said anything to his friend, he believed the portrait artist he’d seen making a nuisance of himself at the dress shop had sweet-talked the porcelain-skinned, green-eyed woman into eloping.

“Maybe, maybe not.” The joints in Henry’s bowed legs popped and cracked as he stood and stepped to the window.

Cullen pulled out his watch to check the time. Before slipping the timepiece back into his vest pocket, out of habit he rubbed his thumb across the Celtic knot on the front of the case. The gesture always evoked memories of his grandfather, an old Scot with a gentle side that countered his temper. Folks said Cullen walked in his grandsire’s shoes. He discounted the notion he could be hotheaded, with one exception. He had no tolerance for liars. When he unveiled a lie, he unleashed the full measure of his displeasure. “We can’t worry about yesterday, and today’s got enough trouble of its own.”

“Rumor has it John Barrett needs money. Heard you offered him a loan.” Henry wagged his pipe-holding hand. “Also heard he got his bristles up, saying he wouldn’t be beholdin’ to nobody. Got too much pride if’n you ask me. You get down to cases with that boy and straighten his thinking out.”

God knew Cullen had tried. “If I can’t find a compromise, our wagon train could fall apart before we get out of town.”

“You’re as wise as a tree full of owls, son. You’ll figure it out.”

The newspaper had served its purpose so he tossed the gossip sheet into the trash. Then he stood and stretched his legs before starting for the door.
Henry rapped his knuckles on the windowsill. “Where’re you goin’?”

A queue tied with a thong at Cullen’s nape reminded him that his shaggy hair hadn’t seen even the blunt end of a pair of shears in months. “To the barber. Afterwards, I’ll figure out how to get your wagon train to Oregon. There’s a law office with my name on the door waiting at the end of the trail. I don’t have time for more delays.”

Henry’s bushy brows merged above his nose. “There’s more than work awaitin’ you.”
“To quote an old soldier: Maybe. Maybe not.” With the picture of a San Francisco, dark-haired lass tucked into his pocket alongside his watch, and the keening sound of his favorite bagpipe tune playing in his mind, Cullen left the office to solve today’s problem before it became tomorrow’s trouble.

Chapter One
MacKlenna Farm, Lexington, Kentucky, February 10, 2012

KIT MacKlenna took the brick steps leading to the west portico two at a time. When she reached the top step she slipped on a patch of black ice. Her arms and legs flailed rag-doll like, giving her some kind of weird location never intended for a human body. Forward motion ended abruptly when she collided with the farm’s marketing manager exiting the mansion wearing three-inch heels and her signature pencil skirt. Tucked under Sandy’s rail-thin arm was Thomas MacKlenna’s 1853 journal. Both women screamed. Sandy’s arms went up and the book hit the floor. And for the second time in less than thirty minutes, Kit landed on her ass.

“I’m so sorry.” Sandy helped Kit to her feet. Then she picked up the leather-bound journal, brushing ice crystals from its cover.

“My fault. I wasn’t paying attention.” Kit rubbed her sore butt. “That’s old Thomas’ journal, isn’t it? Did you read the proclamation to the staff?”

Sandy’s normally animated face brimmed with heartfelt concern. “The forty-day mourning period is officially over. But I’m not sure it will make your life any easier.”

Kit unbuckled her helmet and tugged on the dangling chin strap. “I woke up believing I’d feel better today, but I guess that’s my character flaw.”

“What is?” Sandy asked.

“Believing the impossible is always possible.” Kit slipped her hand into the pocket of her plaid bomber jacket and fingered a crumpled letter. “Sometimes the word impossible means just that— impossible.”

Sandy squeezed Kit’s arm. “I know it’s hard, but you’ll get through this, too.”
Kit removed her helmet and shook her hair, pulling out a few long blonde strands and a clump of mud. “Days like today make me wonder.”

Sandy gave her another reassuring squeeze. “I wanted to ask you something.” She opened the journal and pointed to a line in the proclamation. “This mentions a great-grandson born on the fortieth day? Do you know his name?”

Kit read the line above the marketing manager’s manicured nail. “There’s no record of a birth. Daddy said old Thomas was senile when he died. He probably imagined a grandson.”

“I wonder why no one ever made a notation in the journal.” Sandy snapped the book shut. “Whatever. Oh, by the way, I left the sympathy cards that came in this morning’s mail on the table in the foyer.”

A salty tear slid from between Kit’s eyelids and down her face, leaving behind a burning sensation on her wind-chapped skin.

Sandy pulled a tissue from her pocket. “Here, take this.”

Kit wiped her face and silently cursed that she no longer had control over her emotions.

“Everyone on the farm misses your parents and Scott. We’re grieving with you.”

“I know.” Kit blew her nose. “It’s made the last six weeks easier.”

“Well, call me later if you want to go to lunch or talk or cry. I don’t have broad shoulders like Scott, but I can listen.”

“I miss him bugging the crap out of me.” Kit scratched the scar on the right side of her neck, something she often did when she thought of her childhood friend.

“I can bug you, if you want. Since I don’t have your dad to pester, I feel sort of useless.” Sandy grasped the railing and made her way down the stairs. “Hey, what happened to your stick?”

Kit stooped and picked up her broken whip. “Stormy went one way. I went the other.”

Sandy cupped one side of her mouth as if sharing a secret. “Don’t tell Elliott. He worries about you enough.”

“The way news spreads around here, I’m sure the old Scotsman has already heard. He’ll find me soon enough and ream me out.”

“Don’t let anyone hear you call him old. That’ll tarnish his reputation.” A crease of amusement marked Sandy’s face. “Hey did you hear what happened to his latest fling?”

Kit covered her ears. “TMI.” Half of Lexington’s female population gossiped about the sexual exploits of the serial dater. The other half made up the membership in the Elliott Fraser Past & Present Girlfriends’ Club.

Sandy eased her long legs into an electric cart, depressed the accelerator, and then gave a beauty-queen wave goodbye.

Kit mimicked the wave.

The former Miss Kentucky and marketing guru laughed. “A bit more wrist, sweetheart.”

“Pshaw.” Kit glared at the offending wrist that had been broken four or five times. She wasn’t the beauty queen type. She could ride a Thoroughbred bareback, but put her in a pair of strappy sandals and she’d get stuck in the mud. It wasn’t that she was clumsy. Just the opposite. Silly shoes couldn’t compete with her penchant for practical footwear. She lived on a farm for God’s sake.

Before entering the house, she ran the soles of her tall riding boots across the blunted top edge of the boot-scraper. Then she turned the brass doorknob and gave the heavy oak door pockmarked with Civil War bullet holes a quick shove. It opened on quiet hinges into an even quieter house.

The scent of lemon oil permeated the twenty-foot wide entrance hall. Even as a child, she’d loved the smell. The room cast the appearance of a museum with a vast collection of furniture from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Each piece darkened by countless waxings. Now that Sandy had read the proclamation, the cleaning staff could remove the black linen shrouds that draped the family portraits dotting the oak-paneled walls.

Kit dropped her helmet, crop, and muddy jacket on the rug, and then pulled off her boots, leaving everything piled by the door.

The letter.

She grabbed it from her jacket and stuffed the note inside her shirt pocket.

The side cabinet held a stack of sympathy cards. She blew out a long breath. People from all over the world sent condolences. Their thoughtful words tugged at her heart, but she couldn’t read them right now.



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