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Fort Keogh, Montana Territory, 1879
Elizabeth O'Brian heard voices outside her tent and thought it must be Mr. Miller coming to see if she was dead yet. It was a cold November day and she'd been sitting in her tent for eleven days now in this desolate land. It had only taken her husband, Matthew, and their baby, a few days to die from the fever so Elizabeth couldn't fault the blacksmith for being impatient.
"Mrs. O'Brian," a man's voice called in the distance.
Elizabeth ignored the voice. Mr. Miller knew she was still waiting for the fever to come upon her. He would just have to be patient a little longer. It wasn't as easy to die as it looked.
She supposed he was nervous because she was so close to the fort. No one had thought her tent would be here for this long. She had used the canvas from her wagon to make a tent in this slight ravine that stood a good fifty feet east of the mud-chinked logs that made up most of the buildings at Fort Keogh.
The canvas stretched from the back of her wagon to the only tree here, a squat cottonwood that had looked tired even before she'd tied her rope to it. She had made sure the tree put her far enough away from the fort to prevent the influenza from striking anyone there while at the same time still being close enough that Mr. Miller wouldn't have to walk far when he came to bury her.
The fort was a noisy, smelly place and Elizabeth wanted to die the way she had lived, quietly and alone.
"Mrs. O'Brian," the same man's voice called out. He was closer now.
She frowned. It didn't sound like Mr. Miller calling her.
She'd given the blacksmith her team of oxen in exchange for his promise to dig a proper burying hole for her next to the one that held Matthew and their baby, Rose. Once Mr. Miller had pledged himself, she believed he would do what was necessary when the time came. Still, she wanted her tent to be in sight of the man when it was time for him to do his job. She didn't want to give him any excuse to forget about the deal when she was no longer able to remind him of it. Men, she'd realized in her twenty-eight years on this earth, weren't always reliable.
Elizabeth got to her knees and crawled to the opening in the tent. She hadn't been out of the tent since dawn when she had gotten water from the barrel that was attached to the side of her wagon. She had added another piece of wood to the smoldering fire just outside her tent and boiled water for tea. Someone had left her a plate of hardtack biscuits yesterday. A morning frost had already covered the biscuits before she saw them, making them so brittle she had to dip each one in her tea before it was soft enough to chew. She'd had no appetite, but she'd forced herself to eat two of them for breakfast anyway.
After she ate, she had checked to see that the handkerchief was still securely tied around the back of the wagon seat. When she had refused to stay inside the fort, the doctor had insisted she have a signal for when the fever came upon her. She was to exchange the white handkerchief for a small piece of blue fabric at the first sign of heat. She'd ripped the cloth from the back of one of Matthew's shirts and had it, folded and ready for use, lying beside the old blankets on which she slept.
"Who is it?" Elizabeth peered through the canvas flap that was the closest thing to a door that she had. She saw two men standing a proper distance away. The canvas was stiff in her hands and still half-frozen from the night's cold. She could see her breath when she spoke.
Even with the white handkerchief up, the people who left food and firewood didn't try to speak to her. She had started leaving jars of her preserves on the wagon seat to repay them. She was always glad to see the jars were gone when she walked the few feet back to the wagon. She didn't want to be beholden to anyone when she died.
She wondered who wanted to talk with her now.
"Sergeant Rawlings, ma'am."
Elizabeth nodded. She had seen the man at the blacksmith shop. "I'm sorry, but tell Mr. Miller that it's not time yet."
She moved the canvas in her hand slightly and felt the brush of a freezing wind. She tightened her blanket around her. She'd thought she'd never feel this kind of bitter cold again. Suddenly, she wondered if the blacksmith wanted more payment now that the temperatures were dropping, making it harder to dig in this gray dirt. She hoped not. A deal was a deal.
"We're not here about that. Could you come out here so we can talk?"
Elizabeth hadn't talked to anyone in days and she wasn't in a hurry to do so now. Besides, she wanted to study the men a little before she went out to meet them.
"Give me a minute."
She could see Sergeant Rawlings plainly, but the other man had his back to her. Initially, she thought he was one of the soldiers from the fort, too. But when she looked at him more closely, she realized he couldn't be a soldier. He wore a buckskin jacket and he had a black fur of some kind wrapped around his shoulders in a sling.
She shivered, and this time it was not from the cold. He must be an Indian. She'd seen Indian scouts coming and going from the fort, but this man looked like one of those wild Indians, the ones who killed people. She'd heard they did unspeakable things. Things she shouldn't even think aboutlike taking a lone woman's virtue and then, most likely, her scalp.
Elizabeth reached up to touch her hair. She suddenly wondered if Mr. Miller was planning to use the Indian to scare her into giving him more payment to dig her grave. Maybe Mr. Miller could threaten to have the Indian do the digging if she didn't cooperate. Her breath caught at the thought of a heathen preparing her grave.
Elizabeth kept count of the days, using a stick to mark their passage on the ground outside her tent. She should be in her grave by now, but she wasn't. She didn't know what was wrong. She supposed God was giving her more time on this earth in hopes she would repent of the anger she felt toward Him, but, if that was what He was doing, He might as well move things along. She knew who had taken her baby away from her and more time wouldn't change that.
She couldn't afford to lie in a grave dug by a heathen, though. What if God used that as an excuse to shut her out for all of eternity? She had been careful not to say a single word of complaint against God during this whole timenot to Matthew as he lay dying, not to the doctor, not to anyonebut an unholy grave might turn God from her anyway. She couldn't risk that; the only consolation she had left was the promise that she would see her baby again in Heaven.
She closed her eyes and tried to remember her exact words to the blacksmith, but she couldn't. Matthew had always said she didn't know how to drive a good bargain, and he was right. She should have made it clear to Mr. Miller that he was to handle the shovel himself. Over the past few days, she'd started to feel the cold seeping into the ground beneath her, but she hadn't realized what it might mean. She hoped God would let her die quickly before everything froze deep enough to trouble the blacksmith.
A horse neighed somewhere and Elizabeth opened her eyes again to look at the two men. Something was wrong. Maybe it wasn't Mr. Miller who wanted what was left of her possessions. Maybe it was the two men in front of her who were going to try and steal everything. They were certainly talking about something more serious than shovels as they waited for her. She swallowed. She would be no match for them if that's what they decided.
Elizabeth reached behind her for the old rifle she had, but then stopped. She couldn't shoot someone, not even if they were intent on stealing every last thing she owned.
She moved her hand and leaned forward to look more closely at the men. She did not see any sign of greed on the sergeant's face as he kept talking to the Indian. Neither one of them looked as if they were thinking of robbing her.
"It must be the preserves," Elizabeth suddenly muttered to herself in relief.
Of course, that was it. She'd forgotten they were in the wagon. The army man probably wanted the Indian to help him carry the rest of the preserves to the fort before the jars got so cold they cracked. Matthew had loaded the bottom of their wagon with things for the new store he planned to open, but Elizabeth had known she wouldn't be able to rely on Matthew to feed her and the baby, so she had canned everything she could before they left Kansas.
She'd even poured a mixture of beeswax and beef tallow on top of her jellies and apple butters so the ones they didn't eat on their journey would keep through the winter. Now, the last of the preserves were lying cradled on top of the woolens at the back of the wagon.
Well, she told herself after a moment, the sergeant had the right of it. Preserves were scarce out here. These soldiers lived on their rations of salt pork, dried beans and green coffee. She'd seen the men coming and going from the fort and none of them looked well-fed. She should have hauled all of those preserves up to the wagon seat before now, anyway. Even her pickled things, like her red beets and sour cabbage, shouldn't go to waste just because she was dying.
It wasn't until the man in the buckskin moved that Elizabeth saw the Indian girl sitting on the pinto pony near the fort. She must be about nine or ten years old and she had a blanket wrapped around her. Edges of a faded calico dress showed through where the blanket didn't cover and animal pelts were tied around her legs. Elizabeth couldn't imagine why the girl was watching them so intently.
"Could you just come out here, please?" Sergeant Rawlings called out again.
Reallymen, Elizabeth thought to herself. She supposed it never occurred to any of them to let her die in peace and worry about the preserves later. That was men for you. Always thinking about their stomachs. Matthew had been like that, too. He had always expected her to have a meal ready even when he didn't provide her with a scrap of meat or a handful of flour to use in the making of it.
But, oh, how she missed him and Rose. Matthew hadn't been much of a provider, but he had treated her well enough. She had been learning to please him, too, and, if they'd been given a little more time together, she was sure she would have succeeded in making him happy with their marriage. He was the first family that was really her own. And he'd given her Rose. Her baby only had to be herself to melt everyone's heart.
Elizabeth wrapped a blanket around her like a shawl and stepped out of the tent. The ground outside was slippery from frost and she felt the cold deeply as she walked toward the sergeant and the Indian. She had taken several steps when the man in the buckskin turned around and she saw him fully for the first time.
"Oh, dear, I'm sorry." She stopped and stared. Why, he wasn't an Indian at all. His eyes were blue and the skin around his eyes, the part that was wrinkled from squinting, was undeniably white. His nose wasn't flat like some of the Indians she'd seen and his cheekbones were high. Even with that knowledge, though, she wasn't quite sure about him. Up close, he seemed larger than she had expected. And more fierce than a white man should be. He looked like a warrior no matter what color he was.
"There's no need to apologize," Sergeant Rawlings said stiffly. "We're sorry to trouble you."
Elizabeth nodded and tried to think of something to say to cover the erratic beating of her heart. "It's no bother. It just took me a while becausebecause I wasn't prepared for company."
She was still staring at the other man. She'd never had this kind of breathless reaction to the sight of anyone. Of course, it probably wasn't really the sight of him that was causing her heart to continue racing. It was only that she had thought he was a savage capable of doing anything.
Even now that Elizabeth knew the man she was looking at was a white man, she was still uneasy around him. He was nothing at all like Matthew. Nothing like any man she'd ever seen before.
Oh, dearwhatever he was, he was looking straight at her and frowning.
Then he spoke. "There must be some mistake. She doesn't look like a widowjust look at her."
Elizabeth had expected his voice to be harsh, but it wasn't. It sounded kind and, if she was hearing right, a little discouraged. Although why the man would be feeling that way was beyond her. If he was worried about the way anyone around here looked, he should be worrying about himself instead of her. The soldiers here dressed better than he did. And that wasn't saying much.
She'd noticed right off that the dye in the men's uniforms was poor and some patches of wool were a darker blue than others. The buttonholes were fraying, too. That's what came of using indigo for dye; everyone knew it ate away at the cloth. She would have used dyer's woad if she'd been charged with making the garments, although the leaves of the plant did take longer to prepare.
Even with all of that, though, none of the soldiers wore buckskin the way this man did. One army man she'd talked to said he'd gladly wear a buffalo coat in winter if he had one, but he'd rather wear the blanket from his bed than dress like an Indian.
Elizabeth looked at the man in buckskin. The furs the man wore over his shoulder formed a pack of some sort that he kept close to his chest.