Farewell and Goodbye

Fort Ellis, near Bozeman, Montana Territory
Early April 1873


Although the calendar states that spring is here, winter has not yet loosened its grip on this part of the world. But in our home there is warmth and light.

Robert Black paused in his writing for a few moments, listening to the prairie storm as it howled outside their tiny quarters. Looking about, he noted that the room’s other inhabitants seemed unfazed by the weather. Katja—now a precocious four and a half—was sitting on the floor in Jim Steele’s lap, happily talking through a game of numbers. Jim listened indulgently to her serious, piping explanation, while beside them Jonathan fidgeted and moved her counting sticks out of order without thinking. Jon had just turned eleven the previous week and had little use for “book‑learning” as he put it. Not that he was a poor student; it was just that he was a boy of action and preferred to be out with the horses or watching the men drill or hunting with his pa. Katja’s fascination with numbers both bored and intimidated him.

Over by the stove Danica was finishing dinner preparations. She moved slowly, her body nearly as round as it was tall. In another month they’d finally get to meet the next member of their little family. Rob found himself eagerly anticipating the event. Considering that I once believed I’d live and die a bachelor, I have certainly become quite the family man, he thought wryly.

He studied his wife as she worked, admiring how her hair was still bright, her skin still smooth. Life was often unkind to women on the frontier, aging them prematurely. But not Dani. She seems to thrive on the air out here.

The longer he watched her, though, the more he became convinced that something wasn’t right. Her usual smile was missing, and she kept stopping to touch her belly with a puzzled look.

He put down his pen, walked up behind her, and took her in his arms. “Is something amiss, liebling?” he whispered in her ear.

She twisted about to face him, and his gut began to clench at her expression. “Something’s wrong, Rob. I’m having pains.”

He tried to remain calm. “Didn’t you have those with Katja too, about this same time?”

She nodded, then gasped and gripped his arm hard. “Yes, but not this many or this strong.” Her blue eyes were fearful. “I think the baby is coming. Now,” she said.

“Why don’t you go lie down and rest? Being on your feet so much probably isn’t helping.” Rob had mentioned that earlier, had offered to make the midday meal, but she’d insisted she was still quite capable of caring for her family. Now he wished he’d been more insistent. As he led her into their bedroom and helped her change into a more comfortable gown, he asked solicitously, “Would you like some tea?”

“Yessss.” The sound came out in a hiss of pain as another contraction hit. In just the short amount of time it had taken to settle her in, they were getting noticeably stronger.

“I won’t be but a moment,” he told her, careful to keep an unworried expression on his face. But as soon as the door closed behind him, he leaned up against it, head bowed.

Oh God, what do I do? The fort’s doctor was a civilian contractor, one overly fond of bleeding and purges, though often too drunk to do either. After he’d nearly killed Katja during her bout with croup last fall, Rob refused to call for the man again. Not that he’d even come in this storm.

And there’s no experienced woman I can ask to help either! In November, those few officers who had families at the fort had sent them back to homes in the East rather than make them endure the harsh winter conditions on the plains. True to form, Danica had declared that her place was with him, no matter what the weather, and stubbornly refused to leave. Since the other families had not yet returned, there were currently only two women on post: Danica Black and Gwyneth Owens, the company’s young—and childless—laundress.

He raised his head and noticed Jim looking at him askance. “What’s wrong?” Steele mouthed over Katja’s curly red head.

Rob didn’t have a chance to say anything—from the bedroom his wife cried out suddenly.

Jim saw his friend’s face blanch as he turned and rushed back inside. It’s too early, far too early, he thought with dread. Kat was tugging on his sleeve, a worried look on her little face.

“What’s wrong wit’ Mama, Mr. Jim?”

“I’m not sure, kátsé’e. But your da is with her, so everything’s going be just fine,” he lied brightly as he set her down. Before she could ask anything more he pulled his son aside. “Jon, I need you to take Kat down the hall and entertain her in our room for a while. Be as loud as you like.”

“Is Mrs. Dani gonna scream like that again?” Jon asked in the same hushed voice his father had used.

“Quite likely. Try to keep Kat from hearing, okay?”

“Yes, Pa.” With a big smile he held out a hand to the little girl. “Hey Kat, why don’t you come with me? We can go work on our map some. Or bring those sticks of yours. We can use my old tin soldiers and build forts and stuff like that.”

Despite his growing fear, Jim had to smile. If there was anything Katja Black liked better than numbers, it was making maps and building things. She’s inherited her father’s mind, that’s for certain. They’d barely disappeared when the door to the bedroom opened again.

“What can I do?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t know, Jim.” Rob shuddered in disgust. “I suppose Dr. Bechtel is better than nothing. Beyond that, the only thing I can think of is to fetch Mrs. Owens.”

“I’ll get them,” he promised and vanished into the white blur of swirling snow.