A Great Wide Nowhere

Chapter 1. Brothers and Sisters

Black Forest, outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
July 19, 1866

 

Danica tried to scream against the hand over her mouth, but could only struggle helplessly. The man holding her laughed cruelly; she blinked back tears.I will not cry. I will be strong. Then her resolve faltered. Oh, but where is he? Will he be able to find me?

Suddenly, there was the sound of hooves pounding down the road. A loud whinny, a rearing horse, and Rob was there, uniform dusty with travel, hair wind-blown, and his gun held steady in one hand. He looked down at them, eyes dark with anger, and cocked back the hammer.

“Release her immediately, you villain!” he demanded, lips thin beneath the dark moustache. Looking to her, his expression softened and he said tenderly, “Well, good afternoon, Danica! What a pleasure to be greeted by such einem hübschen Mädchen.”

 

Her fantasy world disappeared in a flash of reality. He really was here, leaning up against a porch pillar and smiling broadly at her. She’d been sitting and reading … and acting out her favorite scenes in her head. For a moment she was tongue‑tied in his presence, embarrassed of her imagination run wild. And then his greeting sank in. Pretty little girl? Oh, blind, blind man! Will you never see that I am a woman, and not some child? Her good humor vanished as quickly as her daydream, washed away by a flood of pain. But she hid her true feelings, as she so often did when Robert Black was around.

“Welcome home, Rob,” she said brightly, summoning a smile for him as he reached out to help her up off the porch steps. “How was Washington?”

“Awful.” His scowl seemed real enough. “I really do despise that place.”

“Are you … are you here for long?” she asked shyly, hoping desperately he’d say yes. She’d missed him terribly the past few weeks. He opened the front door and motioned her through.

“Unfortunately, no. I’ve got to leave first thing in the morning for New York. I only dashed up here to grab the rest of my things. Hullo, Trav. Are Mum and Da around?”

His brother had come out of the sitting room, finger stuck in his book to mark his place. “No. They’re in town for the evening.”

“Blast.” Rob looked puzzled. “What are they doing in town on a Thursday night?”

“Farewell dinner for Reverend and Mrs. Miller. He’s retiring, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know. Afraid I don’t pay much attention to happenings around here.” He consulted the big grandfather clock. “Half six, and I had no lunch. Small wonder I’m hungry. Are we on our own for supper, then?”

Travis hesitated, then winced as the sound of banging pots and a “Drat!” from his wife traveled down the hall from the kitchen. Ellen’s laughter followed. “Well, yes and no. Supper should, in fact, be nearly ready. However, you may need to raid the kitchen later. Our meal may not be as edible as usual.”

“Why ever not?” Rob asked. “I’ve never known Ellen to make a bad meal.”

“Star’s helping, or so she says. Ellen’s still in charge, I believe. I hope. However, no matter how charred or raw things are, I wouldn’t make any comments about the quality of the food.”

Rob chuckled. “No?”

“No. My wife’s a talented Healer, a superb rider, and an excellent seamstress.” Travis lowered his voice conspiratorially, “But she has not had much practice in the culinary arts, and she knows it, and so is rather touchy on the subject. If you value your limbs intact, you’d best keep your mouth shut.”

Danica covered her mouth with her hand, hiding a laugh. “Are we to wait here, then?”

“As the condemned awaits his executioner,” Travis muttered. At Dani’s semi‑reproachful look, he beckoned them into the sitting room and rather blatantly changed the topic of conversation. “So, I’m assuming they let you back in after all?”

“Of course. Though I was a bit worried at first, as they had me reporting to General Rawlins’ office instead of the Adjutant General’s. Rawlins is Grant’s chief of staff, Dani. There I was told that they wanted me to stay in Washington as an aide. I told them politely but plainly that I’d prefer to go back West, and was there anywhere else I could be placed? That seemed to confuse them, and they had me go to my hotel and wait for a few days. When they summoned me back, I was offered a place on General Rusling’s inspection team for the Western posts. Only as a lieutenant, but that doesn’t bother me.”

“Where exactly will you be?” Danica asked, seating herself gingerly in Caro’s straight‑backed chair. How exciting, she thought wistfully. I do hope he remembers that he promised to write and tell me all about his new adventures out West.

Rob had just started to sit down nearby, but at her question he got a thoughtful look and held up a finger. “Hold on just a moment.” He left the room, returning with the big leather-bound atlas from Sam’s office. “Time for a quick geography lesson,” he told her as he opened the book before her on the secretary.

Dani couldn’t hold in her smile— some of her most treasured memories from the past year were the times she’d spent with Rob as her teacher. She studied the map of the United States eagerly.

Travis came near as well, peering over her shoulder. Rob picked up a pencil stub from his mother’s desk and made a dot near the fold of the page, in Kansas, near the Missouri River. “Fort Leavenworth.” He pointed at it. “We’ll be starting there, then crossing the Plains and heading towards the Rockies. Probably following the Overland Trail, but Rusling didn’t say specifically.” The long, tanned finger slid left across the page, farther and farther from the Pennsylvania side of the map. Dani’s heart grew tighter with each inch. “Here’s Fort Bridger. May have to overwinter there. Depends on how smoothly travel goes. From there we’ll hit the Oregon Trail up that way, and visit all the posts from Walla Walla to Tucson.” As she tried to locate those particular names, he picked up her hand and plopped it on the far left of the book. “There. The entire Pacific Coast.”

She stared at the atlas, the map beginning to swim in her vision. I knew he wanted to go back to Colorado. But the Pacific? He’ll be so far away!

“How long will you be gone?” she managed to ask in a steady voice.

“Unknown. We leave the 24th, and I figure it’ll take at least a year. Probably more, which is fine with me. The longer I’m out West, the better the chance of a more permanent assignment coming up, and I won’t have to come all the way back for new orders.” A pause, then he said quietly, “If all goes well, if I have my way, I’ll stay out there forever.”

Forever. Deep down, she’d known this day would come, but even so, she could feel her intricately-built little fantasy world shattering into a thousand broken dreams. She stood hastily, gripping the desk as the room began to spin about and she grew more and more nauseated. She realized Travis was looking at her with concern, but she couldn’t think of anything to say save, “Please pardon me, I don’t feel at all well.”

“Would you like some help?” he asked, moving her chair out from behind her and offering her a hand.

The look of sympathy on his face was too much. Oh heavens. He knows. She shook her head violently, then fled as quickly as her twisted legs would allow.

 

“Dani?” Rob followed her to the doorway and watched her struggle back up the stairs to her room, weeping as she went. “What’s wrong with her?” he asked, convinced he’d never understand women.

His brother glared at him, slamming the atlas shut with one hand.

“Do you suppose you could have broken that bit of news to her any more abruptly?” Travis demanded, sounding almost angry.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Have you been asleep for the past year, brother dear? You must have been. How else could you not realize that the poor girl is in love with you, and the thought of you being so distant from her—forever, as you so bluntly put it—is painful?”

Rob stared at him, then up at the ceiling as though he could see through it to the rooms above. “With me? But … why? I mean, Dani’s a sweet girl, and I have very much enjoyed the time I’ve spent with her, but surely this is no more than a schoolroom infatuation? She’ll grow out of it once I’m gone,” he told his brother.

“Sweet girl? Schoolroom?” Travis looked at him strangely before sudden understanding dawned on his face. “Mo Dhia, you really are that blind, aren’t you. Rob, Danica’s almost twenty years old!”

“Twenty?” Rob repeated, feeling as if he’d just been kicked in the gut.

“Yes, twenty. As in two years younger than Star, five years younger than me, and seven years younger than you. Twenty.”

“She doesn’t look a day over fourteen,” Rob said weakly in his defense. Oh damn. I didn’t realize … and I let her get so close to me? What a fool I’ve been, he finally thought, feeling very tired.

 


 

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