Don’t forgot to read – A Rocky Mountain Christmas : Chapter 6
Continue Reading… 🙂
Christmas night, Mary was too excited to go to bed. Her eyes were heavy with sleep, and she struggled to keep them open as she sat with Emma on the large buffalo robe by the fire.
“When is she going to sleep?” Josiah asked Emma, as he strode to where the girls were enjoying their full tummies after feasting on bear meat all day.
“I told her she could stay up for as long we did,” said Emma. She peeked at the tired child, and smiled when Mary’s eyes forced themselves open one more time. “I don’t think she’ll last much longer.”
“She’d better not.” Josiah didn’t sound pleased by Emma’s permission, especially when he evidently had other plans.
“It’s Christmas, Mr. Brown. Let the child enjoy herself.”
Josiah frowned. “She’s gitting in the way. I was figuring you and me could frolic, tonight. My back is healed enough fer it.”
“I told her she could stay up like the grown-ups.”
“Then tell her you changed yer mind!”
Mary’s chin jutted at Josiah defiantly. “I will not go to bed.”
“Hold yer tongue, afore you lose it.”
“There’s no need for threats, Mr. Brown. Mary, when you speak to your pa, show more respect. Since I’m about to turn in, it’s time for you to start getting ready for bed.”
“Do I have to?” Mary gave Emma a sweet pleading look that tested Emma’s resolve.
“You’ve already stayed up much longer than usual. Start moving, Little One.”
“I am not tired.”
“You will be, after you lay down.” Hoping Mary wouldn’t force her into a disciplinary measure, Emma went to check the bar over the door, as was her habit before bedtime. She had yet to punish the child, for Mary was such a sweet-tempered little girl, it hadn’t been necessary. Out of the corner of Emma’s eye, she saw Mary get to her feet and then step across the space between the two buffalo robes to her small bed. Gratefully, Emma smiled in relief.
Now that his own bed was vacant, Josiah seated himself on the already warm buffalo hides and then pulled off his shirt.
“I am ready to pray now,” said Mary, cuddling beneath the blankets with her two dolls.
After tucking the child in, Emma listened while Mary prayed for the usual people on her list. Tonight, however, Mary added a request.
“Please, save Mr. Brown’s soul.”
Finishing her prayer, Mary yawned sleepily– the first unabashed admission all night that she truly was tired.
With a pained smile, Emma kissed Mary’s cheek. “God keep you till morning.”
“Emma, I’m waiting,” Josiah said impatiently.
“Are you staying up?” Mary looked at Emma hopefully. “Can I stay up, too?”
“We’re going to bed, and so are you. Goodnight, Mary.”
Much was on Emma’s mind as she crawled into bed. Josiah was quick to put his arms around her, but Emma remained so distracted, he finally stopped trying to kiss her.
“You feeling all right?” he asked.
“I don’t want to tussle right now.”
“But, I do.”
Emma gazed at her husband. “She’s calling you ‘Mr. Brown.'”
“I ain’t caring.”
Rolling onto his back, Josiah muttered something under his breath that Emma could just barely understand.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I said,” Josiah’s voice grew impatient with anger, “if this is what I’m to expect with the runt around, then I’m sorry I let her stay.”
“She’s your daughter, Josiah.”
When Josiah didn’t respond, Emma reasoned he was deep in thought. After several moments of silence, Emma peered at her husband and was dismayed to find his eyes tightly closed, as though fast asleep. Emma’s instincts told her he was still awake, and that this was his way of ending their argument.
This time, Emma went to sleep without kissing Josiah goodnight.
The day after Christmas, Emma took down their small tree from off the table, and while Mary wasn’t watching, discreetly hid it outside where it could decay in peace. Its needles had been falling off at a quick rate, and Emma didn’t want everyone to see their special tree completely fall apart before their eyes. After discarding the tree, Emma hurried inside before she froze.
“It’s getting colder!” Emma said in amazement, closing the door before any more of the winter made its way into their cabin. “I didn’t think it was possible to get any colder, but it is!”
Sitting cross-legged on the bed, Josiah was preparing the bear hide he had skinned. He lifted his head a moment to look at Emma, and then went back to work without comment.
“That’ll make you a good warm coat,” said Emma, trying hard to overcome last night’s tension. “It was Providential the bear came when it did.” Suddenly remembering his disagreement over God’s provision, Emma bit her lip. Josiah was already in a bad mood this morning, and she didn’t want to make him any worse.
The mountain man gave Emma a defiant glare, but when he saw her regret, he made no argument.
After warming her hands before the fireplace, Emma told Mary to sit down at the table to begin her lessons.
“Lessons?” Mary asked in puzzlement.
“When I was your age, Ma started teaching me my alphabet and numbers.”
“What are those?” asked Mary.
“Climb up onto your chair, and you’ll find out.”
Taking out her Bible, Emma opened it to the book of Genesis. “See this letter? That’s the letter ‘A.’ It’s the first letter in the alphabet. Trace an ‘A’ on the table with your finger like this.” Emma made an imaginary “A” on the tabletop, and then Mary followed her example. “Very good! Now we’ll make a lower case ‘a.'”
Mary’s mouth spread into a pleased grin when Emma praised her invisible letters.
“I wish you had something more to write on than this,” sighed Emma. Then, getting an idea, she motioned for Mary to climb down. Kneeling on the dirt floor, Emma made an upper case and a lower case “A” in the dirt. “Your homework is to make as many sets of these letters as you have fingers on both hands. Do you know how many that is?”
Mary shook her head, “no.”
Holding up Mary’s right hand, Emma began counting the child’s fingers. When Emma reached ten, Mary asked her to do it again. Smiling, Emma repeated the game, until she finally patted Mary’s head and told her to get to work.
Emma crossed the room to her bed, where Josiah was sitting with his bearskin. Bending down, she reached between the buffalo robes to pull out her deerskin dress. She had worn her blue dress to bed last night, and now that Christmas was over, decided it was time to change back into her mountain clothes. To Emma’s disappointment, Josiah paid her no mind while she changed. He worked as though she wasn’t there, and didn’t acknowledge her presence with even the smallest of glances.
Sighing, Emma put away her cloth dress between the robes and then gazed at the trapper. When he didn’t look up, Emma took a seat beside him on the bed. In the background, Emma heard Mary’s voice sounding out the letter “A” every time she made another character on the floor.
Emma turned her gaze back on Josiah. After skinning the bear he had shot the day before yesterday, Josiah had rubbed the bear’s brains into the underside of its hide to make the skin more pliable. Now he was fleshing the hide with a knife, scraping its underside to remove any remnants of flesh and fat, while leaving the thick fur on the other side intact. All in all, Josiah was making a mess on their bed, but Emma held her peace.
“I’m sorry last night didn’t work out the way you wanted,” Emma said quietly.
Josiah made no reply, but when his eyes moved to her mouth, Emma leaned forward to kiss him.
“I reached ten fingers!” Mary said in triumph, excitedly coming to Emma for her approval.
Dropping his knife on the robes, Josiah embraced Emma while Mary tugged at Emma’s dress to compete for her attention. “I did my homework, Ma.”
“Josiah,” Emma struggled to free herself from his arms, “it’s time to stop.”
With a loud protesting groan, Josiah snatched up his knife to go back to work. “I ain’t happy, Emma. Not by a long shot.” He started in on the bearskin with a vengeance, only to have the blade slip through and pierce the hide. He let out a string of curses, and Emma quickly told Mary to cover her ears.
“Please, don’t use those words in front of Mary.”
“I can’t help what comes out of my mouth, Emma!”
Emma disagreed, but struggled to find common ground with Josiah. “I’ll settle for you just doing your best,” she offered.
Sighing, Josiah gave her a surly nod.
Emma combed back Josiah’s hair with her fingers, and a grin slowly spread across his face.
“You’ll have tonight, Josiah.”
Josiah raised his eyebrows. “Your word on it?”
“How about one more kiss to tide me over?”
Smiling, Emma gave him another kiss.
With a broad grin, Josiah returned to his work, in much better spirits than before.
“Mary, you can take your hands down from your ears,” said Emma, climbing off the buffalo robes. When it was apparent Mary couldn’t hear, Emma gently lowered the girl’s hands. “It’s time for your next lesson.”
“There is more?” Mary asked disappointedly.
Emma smiled. “I think you’ll enjoy this.”
Looking unsure, Mary watched as Emma pulled out a petticoat with a large square missing from the hemline of one side.
Hearing this, Josiah interjected his opinion on the matter. “She needs to learn how to work leather– not cloth, Emma. Fine sewing won’t do her no good in these mountains.”
“I appreciate your advice, Mr. Brown, but Cora expressly instructed me to teach Mary how to live among the white man, and that’s just what I’m doing.”
There was an argument brewing in Josiah’s eyes, but he kept it to himself. Instead, he turned his attention back to the bearskin before him.
“If you wish to teach Mary about leather though, her sewing lesson can wait until another time.”
Josiah glared at Emma. “I weren’t making no offer.”
“Oh, I thought perhaps you were.”
With a harrumph, Josiah worked his knife against the animal skin, noticeably careful to not make any more suggestions out loud.
Emma glimpsed the sad eyes peering up at her, and sighed. “He’ll get used to you, Mary.”
“Is he really my pa?”
“That’s what your grandmother told you, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Mary said disappointedly. With a sigh, she grasped a handful of Emma’s dress, and didn’t let go as she followed Emma to the shelf below the closed window.
“I need to fetch my sewing box,” said Emma, “but we’ll work on your bed, so we’ll have enough light to see by. After all, we wouldn’t want to hurt those pretty eyes of yours.”
The compliment extracted a shy smile from Mary.
Sitting side by side on the warm buffalo robe, Emma opened a carved wooden box. Mary gasped with wonderment as Emma pulled out one treasure after another.
Selecting a slender needle, Emma threaded it with a measured length of wool thread. “Did you see how I did that?” asked Emma. “Now, it’s your turn.”
Wetting one end of the thread in her mouth as Emma had done, Mary tried to push the strand through the tiny eye of the needle. The harder Mary tried, the more frayed the thread became, until Emma noticed tears welling in the girl’s eyes.
“It’s all right, Little One. It’s only thread.” Emma tenderly touched one of Mary’s braids, just as a tear slid down the girl’s cheek. “Maybe you’re too young for this. Why don’t we start with some basic sewing, instead?”
Giving the needle and thread back to Emma, Mary rubbed the tears from her eyes with a small fist.
Mary sniffed. “I miss naahks.”
“What is that?” asked Emma.
“Her grandma’am,” Josiah said from across the fireplace. “She misses Cora.”
“I want to go back to my grandmother,” said Mary, rubbing out more tears. “Please, take me to her, Ma.”
“I can’t, Little One.”
Frantically, Mary dug through the blankets until she found her Blackfoot doll. Wrapping her arms around the doll, she hugged it so tightly, its head fell off. Mary broke into uncontrollable sobs, and Emma quickly scooped the child into her arms.
“Don’t cry, Mary. I’ll fix it.”
Movement from Josiah caused Mary to hide her face against Emma’s chest, and her tears came even harder.
Lovingly, Emma lifted Mary onto her lap, cradling the grieving child in her arms. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” Emma said softly. Then, gently rocking Mary, Emma hummed a lullaby her ma used to sing. The tune was like a soothing balm, and except for the occasional sniff and stifled sob, Mary stopped crying.
“Do you want me to put you down?” asked Emma.
Mary whimpered “no,” and Emma stroked Mary’s braids, continuing to hold her just as she would a baby. Mary seemed to soak up the attention, her small hand clutching Emma’s dress as though Emma were all she had left in the world.
Sewing lessons over, Emma continued to cradle the five-year old. Never had Emma felt more like a mother, than at that very moment. This small life may not be her flesh and blood, but Mary was rapidly finding her way deep into Emma’s heart. Humming the lullaby, Emma felt Mary’s body relax, until the gentle sound of her breath told Emma that the child had fallen asleep.
“Such a sweet little one,” Emma said in a hushed voice. She hugged Mary, and even in her sleep, the girl clung to her all the tighter.
“Yer spoiling her,” said Josiah, scraping the last bit of flesh from the bearskin before putting his knife away.
“She’s just hungry for love,” Emma said quietly, still gently rocking Mary back and forth in her arms. “Everyone needs a little extra love now and then.”
Josiah gazed at Emma, and she saw the harshness fade from his eyes. His look became almost tender, and Emma knew what he was thinking.
“I promise, tonight.”
“I’ll hold you to it,” grinned Josiah. Climbing to his feet, the trapper shook off the mess he had made on the bed, and then threw the bits of bear flesh and fat into the fire where they sputtered and popped until disappearing in the flames. “When’s lunch, Emma?”
“Then put her down. I’m hungry!”
As much as Emma was tempted, she bit back a retort and commanded patience to the forefront of her emotions. “Would you mind preparing it yourself?”
“Why should I, when I got you to do it?”
“Very well, I’ll start lunch.” Emma nudged the child in her arms. “Mary, it’s time to get up.” She coaxed Mary awake, and then shifted the girl back onto the blankets. “Do you feel better now?”
Quietly, Mary nodded “yes.” Seeing the broken doll, Mary buried it out of sight under the blanket, and then closely followed Emma as lunch was being prepared.
“Mr. Brown, we’re almost out of firewood,” said Emma, stoking the fireplace with more wood. “I’ve gathered all the nearby branches and limbs that I can, without taking an ax and chopping down a tree, myself.”
“I’ll git it done after lunch,” said Josiah. Coming to the fireplace to cast one last piece of bear fat into the flames, he knocked into Mary, who was intently keeping close to Emma’s side. “Watch where yer going, you little runt.”
While Emma busily started bear meat cooking on a spit over the fire, she noticed Mary hiding behind her deerskin dress. “Are you frightened?” asked Emma. “Where’s that brave little girl I saw yesterday?”
A large tear splashed against Mary’s cheek, and her small face looked ready to cry again. “He does not want me,” she whimpered.
If Josiah overheard, he didn’t let it show. He grabbed his ax, and set about sharpening the instrument on his bed.
Kneeling on the dirt floor, Emma gazed into Mary’s sad eyes. “I know I can never replace your grandmother, but I promise to love you as my daughter.”
With a tearful smile, Mary hugged her ma.
“You are a great big blessing from Heaven,” said Emma, comforting the child with a loving kiss on her forehead.
The smell of burning meat came wafting from the fireplace, for Emma had been so busy with Mary, she had quite forgotten to keep an eye on their lunch. With a cry of dismay, Emma checked the damage. Mary giggled, her face lighting up with smiles as Emma pulled their blackened lunch from off the cooking spit.
Josiah frowned. “Emma, you burned our meal! Bear meat don’t come along every day!”
Emma tried to remain optimistic. “It’s only a little charred.” When Mary began to laugh, Emma had to smile in spite of herself.
Josiah shook his head in disgust. “What a mess.”
“I’ll eat the worst of the burnt meat, Mr–” Emma hesitated, suddenly remembering Mary was listening, “I’ll eat the burnt meat myself, Josiah.”
“Then you two will be eating the entire meal,” said Josiah.
For all of his complaining, Emma thought she detected him smothering a grin. “Do you want me to fix you more bear meat?” she asked.
Josiah got to his feet to put away his sharpened ax. “No, I’ll feed on buffalo jerky, instead. Then I’ll head out to chop wood.”
“Good,” said Mary.
Josiah grimly stared at the child. “Looking to git rid of me, are you?”
“Mary!” exclaimed Emma.
“Only for awhile,” Mary said timidly.
With a harrumph, Josiah grabbed his buffalo jerky, and then took a seat at the table.
Seeing how badly the food was burnt, Emma turned to Mary. “You don’t really want any of this, do you?”
“It should not be wasted,” Mary said knowingly.
“I suppose not,” Emma sighed. Placing the meat on a plate, Emma sat down at the table to begin eating.
Keeping true to her word, Mary scooted her chair next to Emma, helping herself to the blackened meat.
“I’m sorry I burned lunch,” Emma said apologetically. “This happens to everyone, though. I’m sure even your grandmother makes mistakes.”
“No, her meat never turns black,” said Mary.
Josiah choked on his jerky, and Emma knew he was struggling to keep from laughing. Refusing Emma’s offer to pat him on the back, Josiah managed to swallow down his lunch without further trouble.
Her mouth full of food, Mary turned to Emma thoughtfully. “When will Mr. Brown come back from chopping wood? Will it be several days?” There was an unmistakable ring of hopefulness to her voice that saddened Emma.
“I expect he’ll only be gone for a few hours, Mary.”
Looking disappointed, Mary chewed on her meal in silence.
Emma decided not to reprove the child for calling her father, “Mr.,” after all, Josiah was doing precious little to earn the privilege. Still, it grieved Emma that the two were getting along so terribly. Josiah took little interest in his daughter, and Mary was trying to do her best under the circumstances.
Folding her arms, Emma eyed him curiously, as though not understanding what he wanted. “Why are you still here? I thought you were leaving.”
“Are you going to kiss me before I go?” he asked.
“What’s this?” Emma laughed playfully. “You want me to kiss you before you leave, as well? One before bedtime isn’t enough?”
Josiah didn’t look amused, even though Emma plainly did.
Catching a wide grin on Mary, Emma shook her head in refusal. “I won’t give you a kiss, Josiah, until you give something in return.”
“That’s enough, I’m going.” Josiah turned to leave, but stopped short of opening the door. “You got me curious, woman. What do I need to give?”
Josiah’s grin vanished.
Even though Emma sounded playful, she was very serious. From the dour look on Josiah’s face, she knew he understood her meaning.
Callously, Josiah barred his teeth at the little girl.
Mary’s giggles abruptly stopped.
“For that, you won’t even get a goodbye,” said Emma, all good-humor disappearing from her voice. “Go, before I start wishing you never return.”
A stunned look flashed across Josiah’s face, and his jaw clenched. Disappearing out the door, he left without his kiss, or even a warm smile to brace himself against the bitter cold.
Placing the bar back over the door, Emma gazed apologetically at Mary.
“Can we sew?” asked Mary, her face brightening now that Josiah was gone.
“Sew? After the tears from this morning? Are you sure?”
Emma’s mind wasn’t on the sewing lesson, though Mary gave her much to smile about. The child was willing to learn, and even more eager to please, making Emma all the angrier at her husband. Shoving aside her anger, Emma smilingly hugged Mary. For Mary’s sake, she wasn’t going to let Josiah spoil this time away from him.
The air was so frigid, every breath pained Josiah’s lungs as he slowly lumbered across the deep snow. The mountain man paid little heed to the pain, however, and even the distant howl of wolves were not enough to shake Josiah from his brooding. The memory of Emma’s face as she told him to go, haunted his every step. Part of him wanted to go back and apologize, while his stubborn side refused to admit he had been wrong.
Just then, the ground beneath Josiah’s snowshoe burst into a flurry of white feathers and wings! As the startled grouse flew off, Josiah realized that if his mind hadn’t been so preoccupied with Emma, he could have shot the fowl for supper. Cursing his own weakness, Josiah moved down the mountain where the trees were more plentiful and the cabin a little further from his thoughts.
The cracks between the window shutters signaled the approach of nightfall, and there was still no sign of Josiah. Emma and Mary had a wonderful day together, sewing and practicing the letter “B,” but Emma’s mind had never strayed very far from Josiah. Now, as the sun was threatening to disappear behind the towering Rockies, Emma wondered if the mountain man would camp for the night to lick his wounds. Emma yearned for Josiah, but at the same time, his brusque treatment of Mary was something she simply had to fight. Emma felt she had no choice.
As Emma thought this over, the sound of heavy footsteps greeted her ears. Picking up her shotgun, Emma cautiously opened the door. She saw a tall figure dusted in white, dragging a leather covered burden behind him in the snow. Unsure who it was, Emma raised her weapon at the stranger.
“Are you still so angry, I’m greeted with a rifle?” asked a familiar deep voice.
“Josiah! Thank God, it’s you!” Emma lowered her shotgun in relief. “I didn’t recognize you under all that snow!”
“Yer mighty blind,” he chuckled, dragging his heavy load to the cabin door. Emma stiffened at his criticism, prompting him to add, “But mighty purty, too.”
“Another half hour, and it would’ve been dark,” said Emma, moving aside so Josiah could enter with his load of firewood.
“I’m knowing that, Emma. Ain’t got a clock, but I reckon the sun is as good as any to keep time by. Why? Were you worried I wouldn’t come back?”
“I wondered if you might make camp for the night, instead of returning in the dark,” said Emma, securely placing the bar over the door as Josiah shed his coat before the fireplace.
“Would you have bin sorry, if I had?” he asked, shaking the snow from his capote.
Emma was quiet. Moving Josiah to one side of the fireplace, she hung a kettle of water over the flames.
A small person moved toward Josiah, holding out her arms for the capote. Josiah handed over the garment, and Mary drooped a little under its weight.
“You never answered me, Emma,” Josiah turned back to his wife. “Are you sorry I came back, tonight?”
“I suppose not,” sighed Emma. “If you don’t mind, Josiah, we’ll talk about this later… after bedtime.”
Glancing at Mary, Josiah nodded in understanding.
Since Emma and Mary had already eaten supper, Josiah hungrily gulped down his broth and then ate a hearty meal of bear meat. Even before he had finished supper, Emma began readying Mary for bed.
During Mary’s bedtime prayer, the little girl once again listed off the people in her life, and when she came to Josiah, prayed for his soul with a “Mr. Brown.”
“Do I have to sleep?” Mary asked Emma hopefully, after her prayer was over. “If I stay in bed, could I stay awake?”
“You little bargainer,” laughed Emma. “I know it’s still a little early to expect you to sleep, so I’ll allow it. Your pa and I have some private things to discuss, though, so you must keep quiet.”
“God keep you till morning,” Emma said, kissing Mary’s cheek as the child hugged her soft Christmas doll. “Where’s that Blackfoot doll of yours? I’ll fix it tonight.”
Mary brought out her mortally wounded doll, and Emma smiled as the child placed its missing appendage in her hand.
“This poor doll has seen a hard life,” said Emma, inspecting the break in the neck where the head had come off. Then Emma saw an old sinew cord that someone had bound around the shoulders to keep the head from falling off. Emma discreetly peeked beneath the doll’s leather garments and discovered that the wooden body had been badly broken in several places, only to be bound together again by cord. So much violence had happened to the small plaything, Emma had a feeling someone had done it on purpose, for it was too much damage to be accidental.
“Grandmother fixed it,” Mary said sadly.
“Who did this?”
Mary shrugged reluctantly. “The other children.”
“Blackfoot children? From your tribe?”
Solemnly, Mary nodded, “yes.” “Can you fix it?” she asked with a wistful sigh.
When Emma crossed to the other side of the fireplace, Josiah was lounging on his buffalo robes, worn out from a hard day’s work of chopping wood. Forcing his eyes open, Josiah moved over to make room for Emma on the bed.
“You look tired,” Emma said disappointedly. “I was hoping we could talk.”
“I ain’t too tired,” said Josiah, sitting up to keep himself from falling asleep. He wearily rubbed his chopping shoulder, wincing as he worked the knots from his muscles.
“Do you want me to do that?” asked Emma. Not waiting for him to answer, Emma crawled behind Josiah to massage his shoulder.
“That feels good,” moaned Josiah. “A little to the right? Thanks, Emma. I owe you.”
“I’ll say you do,” Emma sighed patiently. “I’m angry with you, Josiah.”
“I know,” he groaned.
“How could you do that to Mary?”
“It wasn’t hard.”
“I’m not playing games with you, Josiah. I’m serious.”
“So am I, Emma.” Josiah reached over his shoulder, firmly grabbing Emma by the hand and pulling her around until they were face to face. “I ain’t good at apologies, but I figure you got one coming.”
Emma was surprised, but also more than a little wary of Josiah’s charm. In spite of his woodsy ways, he could be quite appealing when he wanted to be.
“Please, don’t say this, just because you’re hoping to tussle me, Josiah.”
“I ain’t doing any such thing,” he frowned. “I shouldn’t have barred my teeth at the ru– at the child.”
“Why are you telling me this?” asked Emma. “Is it just because I’m angry with you?”
“Well,” he hesitated, “you are, ain’t you?”
“Does meanness come so easily, that you can frighten and tease and ignore your own daughter?”
Josiah sighed heavily, rubbing the back of his neck as though wishing he hadn’t stopped Emma from giving him that massage. “It comes easier than I want, Emma.”
“Have you tried to stop?”
“I don’t think I’m asking for a lot,” said Emma. “If you would be willing to try to change in one particular, we would have more peace in this cabin.”
Josiah scowled. “What is it?”
“Please, try very hard to be kind to Mary. She hasn’t had an easy life because of you, and this is her chance for a little happiness. I don’t pretend I can be a better mother to her than Cora, but at least there’s not a tribe here to torment her.” Remembering the half-Indian before her, Emma sighed. “At least, not a whole tribe. One tormentor is enough to make any place a hardship.”
Josiah eyed Emma warily. “What are you calling me?”
Emma sighed. “I’m trying very hard to love you, Josiah. Please, make this easier for me. If you won’t do it because Mary is your daughter, then do it because you love me.”
Josiah was thoughtfully silent. “I reckon I’ll give it a try… fer your sake.”
“You will?” Emma was uncertain.
“I said I would, didn’t I? Just don’t go expecting too much, or you’ll only be angry at me again.”
Wistfully, Emma touched his hand. “I wish you were doing this because it was the right thing to do, and not just because you’re trying to make me happy.”
“I told you I was sorry about making that face to the little girl.”
“Josiah, you and I both know we’ve been looking forward to this night, and the only reason you’re trying to appease me is so we can frolic.”
“You really don’t believe me, do you?” asked Josiah.
“Do you believe it, yourself?”
Josiah hesitated before answering. “I don’t know, but to prove that I mean it right now, I won’t touch you all night and I won’t even expect you to nestle with me.”
Emma was ready to end the discussion, for she felt Josiah was somehow trying to manipulate her to get his own way. “Since we’re not going to be together tonight, I’ll fix Mary’s doll, and then I’m going to sleep.”
Grumbling, Josiah sprawled out on the buffalo robe. “You ain’t even going to let me feel good about being sorry,” he said reproachfully.
It was no use, every word sounded insincere to Emma’s ears, and she didn’t want him to say anything further. Picking up the broken doll, Emma tried to mend the break that Cora had once repaired.
Emma turned about to face Josiah. He was sitting up, looking strangely thoughtful.
“I thought you were going to sleep,” said Emma.
“I really am sorry, Emma.”
“I know, you wish you hadn’t made that face at Mary.”
“It’s not just that.” Josiah brushed back his long hair, his fingers absently toying the eagle feather dangling in his dark mane. “I’ve been cruel to Mary, and I know it. I ain’t proud of it, and I ain’t so sure I can change that part of me, but I’ll try. Even if you never believe me, I’ll try.”
Emma looked at him longingly. “I wish I could believe you, Josiah.”
“I wish I could do more than try,” he shrugged. “It won’t be enough, Emma. It never is.”
“Without Christ, it never will be.”
Grinning bitterly, Josiah shook his head. “I’m done speaking. I’ll be seeing you in the morning.”
Emma watched Josiah roll onto his side, and then struggle with the blankets as he tried to go to sleep. He was exhausted, and yet, Emma knew he was still frustrated and angry.
Winding the sinew cord around the break in Mary’s doll, Emma set it aside and then lay down on the bed.
Just then, Mary yawned, and Emma realized Mary was still awake.
“How much did you hear?” Emma asked the girl.
“I heard everything,” Mary smiled happily. She was obviously feeling quite grownup for having been able to listen.
“Do you have any questions?” asked Emma. “Are you sad?” It was a silly question, for Emma could plainly see Mary wasn’t sad at all.
“No, I am fine, Ma.”
“Since you’re still awake, here’s your Blackfoot doll,” said Emma, handing the child her toy. “Are you sure your feelings weren’t hurt by anything you overheard?”
A voice from the buffalo robes broke in on Emma’s questioning. “Leave the child alone,” said Josiah. “If she’s fine, then let it be.”
Annoyed at his interference, Emma shook her finger in Josiah’s direction. “I thought you promised to back off whenever it concerned Mary.”
Josiah sat up with a grin. “Then I’ll have to speak up once in awhile.” Scratching his chin, he gazed at Emma with a mingling of weariness and playfulness. “We’re certainly a lively pair, you and I. What do you say, Mary? Have we been putting you to sleep with all our talk, or do you think we’re lively enough to stay awake for?”
Surprised, Mary blinked astonishment at Josiah. “I am awake,” she said timidly.
Emma wondered if Josiah would apologize to Mary, but he didn’t. Instead, he rather awkwardly complained how Emma was keeping everyone awake, and then he lay back down to get some much needed sleep.
Before Mary got up the next day, Josiah awoke Emma and the two spent the early hours of the morning in each other’s arms. Neither spoke of the night before, and Emma was grateful for the lack of words between them.
Gazing into Emma’s eyes, Josiah breathed contentedly as he touched her cheek, gently tracing her lips with his thumb. He was about to speak, when Emma stopped him with a pleading look.
“I ain’t going to argue, Emma,” Josiah’s voice sounded low and husky, as though his words were welling up from somewhere deep within his chest. “I love you, Em. I love you, like I’ve never loved anyone. There ain’t much I wouldn’t do fer you.”
Lovingly caressing Josiah’s arm, Emma kissed his thumb as it continued to trace her lips.
“I’ll be nice to Mary– you’ll see.”
“Thank you, Josiah.”
As Josiah hugged Emma beneath the blankets, Mary began to stir and make noises, signaling she was about to get up.
Josiah moaned softly. “Don’t git up, Emma. Don’t leave our bed this morning.”
“Don’t you want breakfast?” she smiled.
Josiah grinned. “I could do without.”
When Mary climbed out of bed, Josiah reluctantly released Emma so she could dress for the day.
“Ma, I need a trip outside,” said Mary, hopping on one foot and then the other as she spoke.
“Don’t forget yer shotgun, Emma.”
“I never do, Josiah.”
“I’m just making sure,” he grinned playfully. As Emma was about to get to her feet, Josiah pulled her close for one more kiss.
“Hold on, Mary. Let me get my rifle first,” said Emma, pulling herself free from Josiah’s grasp.
The girls hurried outside, only to come back minutes later looking frozen from the experience.
Bear meat was served up for breakfast, and afterward, the girls gathered to read the Bible and then to practice the letter “C.” In front of the fire, Josiah molded bullets from long bars of lead, while his bear hide stretched on the wall to dry.
“Up and around, like this,” said Emma, guiding Mary’s finger on the dirt floor. “Now, practice your A’s and B’s again.”
While Mary did her homework, Emma watched Josiah as he poured molten lead into his bullet mold.
“I’ve bin thinking,” said Josiah, releasing the two halves of the mold to reveal a round lead ball, “maybe I should make another bucket.”
“I could certainly use another,” smiled Emma.
“It wouldn’t be fer you,” he grinned. “Mary had to hold her load until morning, so you could take her out to the latrine.”
“So you want to make her a chamber pot?” asked Emma.
“If that’s what people like you call an indoor latrine, then I reckon that’s what I mean. What are you thinking on the matter?”
“It’s a very thoughtful gesture, Josiah.”
The mountain man grinned ear to ear when he saw Emma’s warm smile.
Evening came, and Josiah was hard at work hollowing a log. He hadn’t said much to Mary all day, but it hadn’t been for lack of trying; he just didn’t have much to say to a little girl. Josiah took pride, however, that when he had told Mary to fetch him something from one of his bags, he had said it with a smile, and had even remembered to thank her afterward.
This “chamber pot” as Emma had called it, wasn’t going to be much, but at least it would help Mary. Josiah had thought long and hard to come up with something he could do for Mary, and this had been his best idea. Josiah knew he had to convince Emma that he was trying, and had relished her approving smile when she called it “a thoughtful gesture.” Josiah harrumphed. When had anyone ever accused him of being thoughtful?
The log hollowed out, Josiah handed it off to Emma and she placed it by the door, on Mary’s side of the room.
“Do you understand what’s it’s for?” asked Emma.
Mary stared at the chamber pot uncertainly. “Do I have to do it in there?” she asked in a whisper, not wanting Josiah to overhear what she was saying.
Mary shook her head. “I do not like the dark.”
“Then use the chamber pot.” When Mary still didn’t look convinced, Emma bent over and whispered something that Josiah absolutely could not hear, though he had been able to hear everything else. After some consultation, Emma straightened. “Josiah, if Mary has to use the chamber pot while you’re awake, do you promise not to look?”
“Why should I look?” he chuckled.
Emma gave him a serious look, and Josiah quickly nodded his agreement. “I promise.”
“See?” Emma smiled to the girl.
Staring at the floor, Mary sighed glumly.
“He is trying, Little One.”
“Are you sure he is my pa?” asked the girl, giving Emma a pleading look that begged to be told otherwise.
Taking Mary by the hand, Emma led her to the buffalo robes where Josiah was eating a late supper. “Josiah, tell her who you are.”
“Why should I?” he asked, chewing with his mouth wide open. “She already knows who I am.” The disappointment on Emma’s face gave him cause for concern, so he addressed the short person at her side. “I’m yer pa.”
“Are you sure?” asked Mary.
“You didn’t git that white skin from no Blackfoot,” grunted Josiah.
“I am not white!” Mary said stoutly.
“You ain’t, huh?” Josiah grabbed Mary’s hand, holding it up to his for a comparison. “Lookit, yer hide is whiter than mine. Yer first ma was a full-blooded Blackfoot, so the white in you came from me.” He abruptly released Mary’s hand, only to notice Emma looking a little frightened. “I didn’t hurt her, Emma, so stop looking at me like I did.”
“Please, be gentle,” asked Emma.
Josiah stared at the child. “Like it or not, I’m yer pa. You don’t have any choice in the matter, so it won’t do you no good to fight it.”
Mary hung her head, and Josiah heard her sigh.
“While we’re speaking to each other, Emma is bothered yer calling me ‘Mr. Brown.’ I reckon you’d best stop.” When Mary remained silent, Josiah tilted her chin up so he could see her eyes. “I know I’m rough, but I won’t hurt you. I ain’t used to living with so many women, but I’ll git used to it.”
“I know, I ain’t too pleased about it, myself,” he sighed. Not knowing what else to say, Josiah held up the last of his supper to the girl. “You want it?” he asked. Quietly, Mary accepted the bear meat, and then went to sit down on her blankets to eat. Josiah wiped his greasy hands against his buckskins. “How much bear is left, Emma?”
“We have enough for tomorrow.” Emma sat beside Josiah, folding her legs close to her body to keep warm, for the cabin was cold in spite of the fire.
With a strong hand, Josiah slid Emma closer to him, and then wrapped his arms around her as they watched the flames in the fireplace. “I’ll be going hunting in the morning.”
“You don’t have to, Josiah. We still have plenty of buffalo jerky.”
Josiah nuzzled the back of Emma’s neck. “That jerky is to tide us over in between kills. We don’t have enough for the whole winter, so I have to go out and find more game.”
“Can I go with you?” Josiah and Emma looked up in surprise at Mary. “Can I?” asked the child.
Emma was stunned. “You want to go with your pa… alone?”
Josiah’s first impulse was to turn Mary down, but when he thought it over, this was a good chance to prove he was trying to be kind. “All right. If yer really wanting to go, I’ll take you.”
Emma looked doubtful, even though Josiah could tell she was happy he had said “yes.”
“Stop yer worrying, Em, I’m bringing you with us. It’ll take me a few days, but after I make myself some snowshoes and finish that there bear coat, we’ll go hunting! Until then, we’ll eat jerky.”
By the morning of the very next day, Mary was excited about Josiah’s promise to take her hunting. It was no wonder, for besides the trips to the latrine and the daily chore of fetching water, Mary hardly got to go outside at all. Even Emma had to admit she was looking forward to escaping these four walls in exchange for some fresh air– even though that air was sharp with cold.
After Bible time, Emma started Mary on another letter of the alphabet, while Josiah went out to find some willow to make himself a pair of snowshoes. The girls were just about to start their sewing, when the door flew open, and Josiah lumbered in with his wood. Emma drew up the blanket shawl about her shoulders, warming herself against the chill Josiah had brought into the cabin before he closed the door.
With a great deal of concentration, Mary guided one end of her thread through the eye of the needle, and then pulled it through with a happy grin.
“I threaded the needle, Ma!” Excitedly jumping to her feet, Mary ran across the room to where Josiah was tugging off his capote. “Look!” the child held her needle and thread before the burly man, “I did it all on my own!”
Josiah gave Mary a gruff nod. “So I see.”
“Fetch my ax, Mary.”
With a sigh, Mary returned her needle to Emma, and then located the ax behind the door. With both hands, Mary dragged the heavy object to Josiah.
“Here,” she said quietly, her tone much more subdued than before.
“Thanks,” grunted Josiah. Sitting cross-legged on his bed, he split a willow branch into thin sections to form the skeleton of his snowshoes. Then Josiah reached over to the kettle where strips of leather were soaking in water. While the leather was wet, he bound the ends of the two willow strips together, fastening small lengths of willow in the middle to support his foot. Josiah repeated this a second time, until he was ready to lace the snowshoes with leather, so that when he walked, the webbing of lacing would stop his foot from sinking into the snow.
Interested, Mary squatted down to watch him work. She remained silent, and smiled at Josiah when he looked up to see her still there.
“Ain’t you got nothing else better to do?” asked Josiah.
“When will you work on your bear coat?” asked Mary.
“After I finish with these here snowshoes.”
Mary wobbled a little on the balls of her feet, her ankles tiring. She shook her head as Josiah wove the leather webbing. “That is not how it is done,” she said gravely.
“This is how I do it, so keep yer mouth shut.”
With an audible sigh, Mary continued to watch.
When Josiah brought one end of the leather up around the edge of the snowshoe, Mary winced as though he were making a terrible mistake. In disgust, Josiah dropped what he was doing and glared at Emma. “Ain’t you going to call her back to yer sewing?”
Folding her arms, Emma smiled firmly. “Right now, this is more important.”
Grunting his protest, Josiah picked up the snowshoe to resume work.
“What is that for?” asked Mary, pointing to the eagle feather dangling in his hair. “You must be very brave to have a feather.”
“What are you talking about?” Emma asked the girl.
“An eagle feather means he did something with much courage,” said Mary.
“Really?” Emma looked at Josiah curiously. “What act of courage did you do?”
“I killed me a griz,” he finally said, weaving the leather through the webbing on his snowshoe. When the girls weren’t properly impressed, he went on. “I killed him after he tore off half my scalp. Meanest animal I ever come across.”
“What happened?” asked Mary.
“I was trapping beaver with my friend, Pierre, in the Green River Valley, when we lost our horses to some thieving Crows. We were left high and dry without food nor ponies, and not a rifle between us.”
Mary’s eyes grew wide. “What did you do?”
“Pierre and I began walking to the nearest trading post, when we come across the biggest, meanest, old griz I ever laid my eyes on. Pierre started mumbling prayers, saying we was dead men, but I weren’t ready to give up the ghost so quick. When that griz started galloping at us on all fours, I knew it weren’t no use trying to outrun him, so I grabbed my knife and stood my ground.”
Emma eyed Josiah skeptically. She felt he was just spinning this tall tale to amuse Mary.
“He took me down, and with his great jaws, ripped back my scalp. While we was wrestling, I managed to lodge my knife in his heart, and after that, it didn’t take him much longer to die.”
Mary looked a little doubting, but when Josiah nodded that it was so, she grinned proudly.
“That’s right, yer pa killed that old griz. Afterward, I put an eagle feather in my hair so all would know I wasn’t a man to tangle with lightly.”
“What was Pierre doing all this time?” asked Emma.
Scowling at his wife, Josiah continued on about his exploits while his hands kept busy weaving snowshoes.
Emma didn’t like the fact she believed Josiah was telling a falsehood, but something else bothered her even more– that long pause he had given before telling his fantastic story. She had the distinct impression a bear had nothing to do with why Josiah wore that eagle feather in his hair.
By the end of the day, Mary had quite forgotten her sewing lesson, having spent her time watching Josiah and listening to his stories. All of them were entertaining, though Emma doubted their truthfulness, for some were simply so far-fetched, she thought it impossible he could be telling the truth.
After supper, when Emma had managed to get a rather rambunctious Mary to sleep, Emma rested on the buffalo robes next to Josiah. He seemed thoughtfully quiet, and in no hurry to be the first to speak.
“Josiah? Why do you really wear that eagle feather?”
The trapper turned his head to look at Emma, silently regarding her face before answering. “Reckon it’s best if I don’t say. I’d be a fool to give you more cause to dislike me.”
“Does it have to do with a woman?”
Gazing into Emma’s brown eyes, Josiah groaned softly. “I can’t hold nothing back from you, can I?”
“Did you love her?”
“No.” Josiah’s answer came so readily, Emma knew it was the truth. “She was my first whore, Emma. That’s all.”
Closing her eyes, Emma felt Josiah take her into his arms. When she stiffened, he held her even tighter. “I shouldn’t have told you. Now you’re angry.”
The eagle feather dangled in Emma’s face, and she turned in Josiah’s arms to get away from that blatant reminder of his past.
“Emma,” Josiah gently spoke her name, love permeating his deep voice. Taking Emma’s hand, Josiah guided it to the eagle feather and then closed her fingers around the offending object. “I don’t want it anymore, Emma. Take it. From now on, the only one I’ll wear in my hair is you.”
Tearfully, Emma pulled the feather from Josiah’s hair. She would have rather chosen to believe the grizzly story, than to think he had placed so much brazen pride in something so shameful.
Josiah drew Emma closer, letting her face dry against his hunting shirt. “I wouldn’t do this for any woman but you,” he said in a hushed voice.
Emma tenaciously clung to Josiah’s love, squeezing every drop of affection she could from his tender words. He loved her enough to give up his trophy, and Emma comforted herself with that thought.
When morning came, Josiah began working the bearskin into an actual coat. It was crudely done, and not at all a finished garment like Emma’s soft deerskin dress, or even Josiah’s own buckskins, but the coat would work well to protect him from the winter.
As Josiah worked, Mary watched nearby, asking questions whenever she could. For once, Josiah didn’t seem to mind the interruptions until Emma stopped him as he was about to begin a story.
“Josiah, I would appreciate it if you didn’t fill Mary’s head with fantastic yarns that never happened. I’m trying to teach her the truth– not fables passed off as the truth.”
“You don’t believe me, Emma? My own wife?”
Emma could hear the playfulness in Josiah’s voice, and she struggled not to dissolve under the influence of his sweet-talk.
“You know what I mean, Josiah. Very little of what you told Mary yesterday, was the truth.”
“I’ll admit to flavoring the facts, but the particulars were true enough.”
“Come now, Josiah, you never had your scalp ripped off by a grizzly. Admit it.”
Setting aside the bearskin, Josiah pulled back his long hair so Emma could see a great ridge of a scar that ran from behind his right ear all the way to the front of his hairline. Emma wondered she had never noticed it before now, but then again, Josiah’s body was full of old scars.
“What about your friend, Pierre?” Emma asked incredulously. “What was he doing while you were being mauled?”
Letting his hair down, Josiah shrugged. “He was clawed when he tried to get the griz off me. After the bear took my scalp, Pierre sewed it back on afore he died.”
Swallowing hard, Emma felt a little lightheaded.
Josiah stared at her skeptically. “You ain’t going to swoon, are you?”
“That was a little more detailed than I expected.”
“It’s the truth.”
“Those other stories… you didn’t make them up?”
“Only here and there,” he shrugged. “There’s no harm in stretching things to make a good story.”
“As long as you don’t try to pass it off as the truth,” Emma looked at him sturdily, and Josiah knew he had met his match.
“All right, Emma, have it yer way.” Josiah picked up a sharp awl to puncture holes in the bearskin to make room for the seams. Grinning, he winked at Mary. “I do believe Pierre would be alive this very day, if your ma had been there, Mary. Why, that old griz wouldn’t have stood a chance against Emma!”
Mary giggled and Josiah flashed Emma a broad grin. Then his grin slowly faded, and Emma guessed he was remembering his friend. This was a hard wilderness filled with hard people, and Emma no longer wondered at Josiah’s roughness. A man would need to be anchored to something greater than himself, to not let these rugged mountains change his soul for the worse. She knew Josiah did not have that anchor, and she longed for him to posses that steadfast hope.