Don’t forgot to read – The Hunting Party : Chapter 8
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The days following their chance meeting with the Shoshone hunter, Josiah enjoyed his family for the first time. There were no big revelations, but just the general sense that he possessed something of value. Mary was a smart child, and no wilting wildflower when it came to danger. Josiah felt pride that she was his daughter. And Emma– even the Shoshone had wanted her for his wife. What man in his right senses wouldn’t? He and Emma were even expecting a child of their own. Yes, Josiah figured he had it pretty good.
A week later, Josiah lazily rested on the buffalo robes, listening to Emma as she read from the Bible to Mary. Careful to keep his eyes shut so as to appear asleep, Josiah mulled over the words Emma read out loud: “Whoso committeth adultery with a woman lacketh understanding: he that doeth it destroyeth his own soul.” (Proverbs 6:32)
As much as Josiah tried not to, his mind wandered back to the beautiful Blackfoot woman who gave birth to Mary. The woman had been the wife of another man, but Josiah hadn’t cared. Grimly, his eyes drifted to the fireplace. He remembered the woman’s terror when her husband discovered them together. Only after being forced from the village, did Josiah learn of the woman’s fate.
Fixing his gaze on the child seated beside Emma, Josiah felt his insides again turn to stone. Guilt lived in this cabin with him, and it came in the form of a small girl. Once more, he wished he had stopped his mother from forcing Mary onto Emma and himself. It was easier to put the past behind him, without being reminded of it on a daily basis.
As Josiah entertained these morbid thoughts, Mary looked up at him with a bright smile. Letting his disdain freely show, Josiah stared back until Mary’s pretty smile disappeared.
Hanging her head with a loud, patient sigh, Mary scooted a little closer to Emma.
Josiah’s conscience smarted, but only a little. It was then he noticed the cabin had gone silent, for Emma had stopped reading. He frowned as Emma stared at him in displeasure.
“Please, try to get along with her,” asked Emma, in obvious disappointment. “You’ve been doing so much better lately.”
With a curt grunt, Josiah stood to lift down his Hawken from some pegs on the wall.
“Where are you going?” asked Emma, closing the Bible.
“Hunting,” came Josiah’s one word reply. He had let himself think too much about Mary’s mother this morning, and it was all Emma’s fault for reading out of that Bible of hers.
“Will you be back for lunch?” asked Emma.
“Stop asking so many questions, Emma. I’ll be back, when I’m back.”
“Why are you so angry?” asked Emma.
“I ain’t angry.”
“You certainly sound it,” said Emma, putting her Bible away.
Feeling the muscles in his jaw tighten, Josiah forced himself to ease off. “Don’t wait lunch fer me. If I can’t find game before sundown, I’ll sleep in the valley.” As Josiah placed his Hawken on the table, he heard Emma come up behind him. Two graceful arms wrapped around his chest, and he felt Emma rest her head against his back.
“Hurry home as soon as you can,” she said in the gentle voice Josiah had come to love so much. “Don’t stay away longer than you have to. I don’t like sleeping alone, and neither do you.”
Feeling a little playful, Josiah turned about in Emma’s arms until they were face to face. “What are you meaning? I like having the buffalo robes all to myself.”
A small knowing smile crept across Emma’s lips. “Are you sure you have to go?”
“We need the food, afore we go through all our winter jerky.”
Emma leaned against him, and Josiah heard her sigh wistfully. “God keep you safe, My Love.”
A sense of helplessness coursed through Josiah, until he felt it encroach upon his very soul. At that moment, he would have done anything to make Emma happy. Anything. Even become a Christian. Drowning himself in her arms, Josiah kissed his wife until her embrace grew tighter.
Instead of feeling pleasure, however, Josiah felt trapped. More and more, his soul was clinging to Emma, and it disturbed him greatly.
Pushing Emma aside, he went to retrieve some jerky for his trip.
“Are you sure you’re not angry?” asked Emma.
“Stop hovering over me like a mother hen, Emma! I said wasn’t angry, so let me be before I change my mind.” Josiah bundled some things into a heavy buffalo robe, and then bound it with sinew. To his annoyance, Mary came to watch him pack, keeping him in a disagreeable mood.
Josiah felt hedged in on every side, and needed some escape.
After receiving a long goodbye kiss from Emma, Josiah headed outside, glad for the freedom. Let the women have the lodge, he would have the mountains!
In Josiah’s haste to get away from Emma and Mary, he could find no soft spot in his heart to be anything but glad that he was out on his own again. Even though it was only to go hunting, he wouldn’t have to endure hearing another word about adultery, and how he was such a bad man. There would be no little girl with eyes so much like her mother’s, and no guilt to continually fight against. Here, he could do as he pleased.
Instead of immediately going hunting, Josiah enjoyed the solitude of the wilderness and rested himself by the shelter of some trees. He already intended not to find any game today, and was making plans to stay out all night. Tomorrow, he would hunt, but today, he would do as he pleased. He would not deny himself anything.
As Josiah busied himself in his rebellion, a figure appeared in the distance. By the time Josiah noticed the man, he was already within shooting distance.
“Thought you was gone,” said Josiah, immediately recognizing the Shoshone Indian from last week.
The man remained silent, his eyes fastened on Josiah’s Hawken.
Gripping his rifle with a possessive hand, Josiah stood up from his resting spot. “This is Blackfoot country. They won’t be none too pleased to find you here.”
The man gave an assenting grunt, his face coming to life with a flicker of fear. The Shoshone and Blackfoot were enemies, and it was risky for the Shoshone to remain in these mountains for long periods of time. Josiah understood this, and from the Shoshone’s expression, Josiah knew the man understood the hazard he was taking by remaining.
“No food,” the Indian said in broken English. “Buffalo gone. People hungry.”
Resting his Hawken in the crook of his arm, Josiah nodded with a grim smile. “I reckon the Blackfoot and Crows scared all the game away.”
“Crows,” said the man in disdain, for the Crows were also enemies of the Shoshone.
“Why ain’t you gone to follow the buffalo?” Josiah asked curiously. “Scared of gitting caught, huh?”
The Shoshone straightened his back at Josiah’s taunt, but kept quiet. Josiah could tell he was hungry, and probably hadn’t eaten much in days.
When the man kept staring at Josiah’s Hawken, Josiah shifted it to his other arm to enforce the message that the rifle was off limits.
“You trade?” asked the Indian.
Josiah scowled at him mockingly. “You’ve got nothing to trade that I want. Yer belly is as empty as yer head.” He was about to walk away from the man, when the Shoshone invited him into his lodge to eat and discuss a trade. Josiah knew he wasn’t likely to be fed very much, but since he was disposed to let the man entertain him for awhile, accepted the invitation.
As Josiah followed the man against the foothills of the valley, Josiah noticed the mended tear in the man’s sleeve. “Is yer arm mending?” asked Josiah.
The Shoshone grunted. It was humiliating to have been wounded by a mere girl child, and Josiah knew it. That’s why Josiah mentioned it with a mischievous grin, and delighted in seeing the man squirm with embarrassment.
The Shoshone’s lodge was made with long poles, and covered with warm buffalo hides to keep out the cold. When Josiah stepped inside, he was met by three women, and a man who stared at him suspiciously. Josiah knew it was hard to disguise his Blackfoot heritage, and tried to act as unthreatening as he could by letting his rifle lay in his lap when he sat down.
The lodge was warm, but there was little food in sight. Josiah’s host said something to one of the women, and she rather reluctantly brought forward a small portion of meat. Realizing he was being offered the last of their food, Josiah turned it down, and the men began to talk.
The second Shoshone man was the first one’s friend, though from their short exchange, Josiah guessed they weren’t very close friends. His host had two wives, while his friend only had one. From the tassels of human hair trimming his host’s leggings, Josiah guessed this man was something of consequence among his people. The men were here to hunt, though since their horses had been stolen, it was difficult to leave and return to their village back west. The second man was only interested in finding out if Josiah knew where the buffalo were at, while the first kept turning the discussion back to Josiah’s Hawken.
All the while, Josiah kept diverting his gaze to one of the women seated at the back of the lodge with the others. She wasn’t much older than Emma, though by her worn features, it was plain she led a hard and difficult life. Her expression was one of curiosity, and Josiah found himself interested.
“You like woman?” asked the host.
“Who is she?”
“First wife,” said the man.
Josiah stared at the woman, and an old, familiar sensation pulsed through his veins. It was the excitement of something new and different, and the prospect of a night of adventure. He could feel it in the air, and taste it in his mouth.
Upon seeing Josiah’s interest, the second man hurried his wife out of the lodge, apparently not willing that his own woman come under Josiah’s scrutiny. He glared at Josiah before muttering something to the other man. The two Shoshone exchanged some hard words, and the second man left for his nearby lodge.
“You trade?” asked the host, pointing to Josiah’s Hawken.
“I can’t give up my rifle,” Josiah shook his head. “How will I git home?”
The Shoshone held up his own weapon– a battered flintlock rifle. “I give with one night with woman. You trade?”
Josiah looked back at the woman, and then reached inside his bundle for something likely to fetch her attention. Holding up a small mirror, Josiah presented it to her.
Eyeing the object longingly, the woman remained undecided. When Josiah added a knife to the offering, she finally accepted them with a willing smile.
That was all Josiah needed. He handed over his prized Hawken, received the Shoshone’s flintlock trade rifle, gave the woman her mirror and knife, and then followed her to bed.
The next morning, Josiah awoke with a woman in his arms. For a moment, he thought it was Emma, but when the firelight revealed the Shoshone woman, he remembered his trade. Soothing his conscience with another embrace, Josiah remained under the animal hides until the woman’s husband declared his time was up.
Leaving Josiah, the woman dressed, and then went to help wife number two get the lodge ready for the day.
When Josiah passed the woman’s husband on his way out, he glimpsed his Hawken proudly displayed beside the man on a buffalo robe. Anger surged within Josiah’s breast, but a deal was a deal, and he paused long enough to give up the percussion caps the Shoshone would need to fire the Hawken.
Clamping his jaw shut, Josiah stepped outside into the snow. He strapped on his snowshoes, and then headed off for somewhere in the valley where he might find large game. With a groan, Josiah looked over the old trade rifle in his hands. He had lost his Hawken. The one he had saved for, and worked so long to obtain. How many beaver skins had it cost him? Josiah didn’t want to calculate the sum.
Clouds parted overhead, beating heat onto Josiah’s heavy bear coat. Tugging it off, he let himself cool down a moment before continuing on his way. His pulse was fast, and he felt panic nipping at his heels. Why was last night different from the others? Josiah swiped at the perspiration beading on his forehead. He felt fearful, as though half expecting a large hand to come down from the Heavens and flatten him where he stood.
Josiah turned his attention to the beat-up flintlock, to test its accuracy. Bringing the rifle to his shoulder, Josiah fired the weapon. As he reloaded it, Josiah recalled Emma’s tender look as she kissed him yesterday morning before he left.
Angrily, Josiah shoved aside the image, plodding across the snow in search of something to shoot.
The skies closed once more, and the sunlight disappeared behind thick clouds. Wind swept around the foothills, chilling Josiah’s frame and making him wish for the sunshine again.
“Sunshine,” he said in a dull voice. The memory of Emma’s soft golden hair, her warm smile, the gentle touch of her hand, the tilt of her head when she laughed, all flooded Josiah until he thought he would suffocate. Grimacing, he pulled open his coat to breathe easier. When it didn’t work, he hastily closed it again to keep warm.
Josiah’s eyes fell on the Shoshone’s trade rifle. His Hawken was truly gone. He felt as though he had just lost a dear friend. Unbidden, the memory of Emma returned. He could feel Emma nestled at his side, happy and content in his arms. The vividness caught Josiah off guard. Try as he might, he could not stop the sound of her hushed voice as they exchanged tender words while Mary was asleep. Had his soul ever burned for a woman, as it had for Emma?
But he had embraced another man’s wife last night.
In a fit of rage, Josiah slammed the old rifle against the snow. Breathlessly, he stared at the object in disbelief.
“What have I done?” he asked.
As the question set in, Josiah realized his weakness and hardened himself against the answer. He was accountable to no one– not even to Emma. Let the world be cursed. He would do as he pleased.
Stooping down, Josiah retrieved the battered rifle, wet with snow. It had been a poor trade, but at least he had a usable weapon.
The day waxed dim, and the sun set against the mountains, signaling the approach of night. Josiah had been away for two days now, and knew Emma would be praying for his safe return. She was like that. As he built a campfire before settling down to sleep, Josiah knew he wasn’t ready to go back and face Emma.
It was snowing again, laying yet another blanket of white against the vast wilderness. Standing in the open doorway, Emma brought up her shawl a little higher around her shoulders. Her eyes scanned the mountains, searching for someone who wasn’t there.
Wanting to see for herself, Mary stood at Emma’s side wrapped in a warm blanket. “Where is he, Ma?”
“Game must be scare, or else he’d be back by now,” said Emma, steeling her voice with an unspoken prayer.
Sighing wistfully, Mary hugged Emma’s dress.
“He’ll come when he’s able,” said Emma, stroking the girl’s braids with a reassuring smile. “Let’s close the door before we let anymore snow inside.”
Mary had difficulty concentrating on her lessons that morning, for every time she heard a noise, she would run to the window to peek through the shutters and see if it was Josiah.
“It is not him,” Mary kept saying, each time looking a little more disappointed than the last.
Though Emma tried not to let it show, she was becoming more than a little concerned about Josiah. Evening was fast approaching, and tonight would be the third night he would be gone. Had a bear finally gotten the best of her husband? Or perhaps the snows had become too much, and he had succumbed to the cold.
In spite of her fears, it was difficult for Emma to imagine Josiah freezing to death, when he was so knowledgeable in building shelters. And he had taken a heavy buffalo robe with him, so he was probably fine. In fact, Josiah was more than likely lying beside a warm fire right now, eating grouse and enjoying a snug lean-to while the snow piled up outside. As reasonable as all this was, Emma kept up a steady stream of petitions, reminding God of His promises.
“Safety is of You, Lord,” Emma would often pray.
Mary stood by the shutters until her legs grew tired. Today was the fourth day of Josiah’s absence, and Emma was fighting back thoughts about going to look for him. She knew it wouldn’t do any good, and probably only result in her own death, but the desire to go and find Josiah was strong.
Even Mary voiced the same thought, but Emma was quick to put it from Mary’s head.
“God will help him,” Emma said confidently. She promptly followed her statement with a silent prayer, and then shuttled Mary off to her morning lessons to keep the child busy.
Just as Emma was offering another prayer for Josiah’s return, she heard the sound of crunching snow outside the cabin. Rushing to the shutters with Mary, Emma saw a large man with three slain rabbits dangling from his shoulders.
Emma let out a deep sigh of relief. “Thank you, God!”
Throwing open the door, she ran out to meet Josiah. Emma hugged his bearskin coat, not caring that she was getting snow on her dress.
“You had me very concerned,” said Emma, letting Josiah move toward the cabin without her hanging on to him to slow him down.
“Hunting ain’t so good,” Josiah said, swinging down his quarry. “All I got to show fer my trouble are these thin rabbits.”
Emma accepted the animals with a smile, simply grateful to have her husband back in one piece. As Josiah entered the relative warmth of the cabin, Emma noticed his face for the first time. His features were sharper than usual, and he wore a strained expression that told Emma he had seen difficulty.
“Did you have a very bad time?” asked Emma, closing the door as Josiah shed layers of animal hides before the fire.
When he looked up at Emma, she noticed a look of surprise flash in his dark eyes.
“What makes you think I had a hard time?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Emma. “Somehow, you don’t look the same. Did you have enough to eat?”
Scowling, Josiah planted himself before the comfortable blaze. “I didn’t starve, if that’s what yer meaning. Stop fussing over me, Emma. I know how to take care of myself.”
Mary was struggling to hang Josiah’s heavy coat on its peg, so Emma went to help her.
The chore finished, Mary happily seated herself beside Josiah.
“Where is your Hawken?” asked the child.
Surprised by Mary’s observation, Emma examined the rifle on the wall. Instead of Josiah’s handsome Hawken, she found a weathered flintlock.
“Josiah! What happened to your rifle?” Emma asked in alarm. When Josiah didn’t respond, Emma repeated the question.
“I heard you the first time,” said Josiah. “I ain’t deaf.” He held up his large hands before the flames, rubbing them together until his skin returned to its normal color. “I’m hungry, Emma. How about fixing some of that rabbit fer supper?”
“But, the rifle–“
“Forget the rifle,” Josiah said impatiently, “and start stirring up some supper.”
Timidly, Mary looked up at Josiah, and for a moment, Emma thought the girl would be frightened away by his harsh tone. But Mary faithfully remained where she was, all the while smiling, as though hoping to encourage a similar response in her pa.
When Josiah didn’t acknowledge Mary, Emma shook her head with a disappointed sigh.
Before long, a rabbit was roasting over the fire, its savor filling the small cabin. The meat fully cooked, Emma placed a large helping on Josiah’s plate. He always ate more than her and Mary, and despite Josiah’s claim that he hadn’t starved, Emma had heard his stomach growling like a hungry animal ever since he entered the cabin.
Josiah joined the girls at the table, but he didn’t wait as he usually did while Emma prayed over the food. Instead, he immediately started eating, and didn’t seem to care when Emma gave him a pleading look.
After the meal, bedtime quieted the cabin even more as Mary climbed into her bed. Emma tucked the child in, quietly hearing Mary’s prayer, and then giving and receiving a goodnight kiss.
As Emma crawled into bed beside Josiah, she saw that his eyes were closed, as though already asleep. From his breathing, however, she knew he was still awake.
Emma rested her head against the thick buffalo robes. “Josiah?” she asked softly.
“What is it? I’m trying to sleep.”
“It’s good to have you home, Josiah. You were missed.” Emma turned her head to see him staring at the log rafters in the roof. “I’m sorry you had such a difficult time hunting. I wish I could’ve helped you.”
Josiah said nothing.
Emma turned her gaze upward, at the same log rafters he was so intently inspecting. It made her feel closer to Josiah, as if she were able to share his thoughts in some small way.
“I’m so very happy, Josiah.”
He looked at Emma in puzzlement. “What’ve you got to be so happy about?”
“The baby,” said Emma. “You haven’t forgotten, have you?”
“Oh, that.” Josiah turned his eyes back to the rafters.
“It’ll be our second child,” said Emma, trying to encourage some interest in the life sprouting in her womb.
Josiah harrumphed. “What do you mean by, ‘second’? You still pretending that bastard child is yours? What’s wrong with you, Emma? She’s the offspring of a dead squaw.”
It was the first time Emma had heard Josiah use the term “squaw,” though she had commonly heard it used among her own people.
“What does ‘squaw’ mean?” asked Emma. “Isn’t it just another word for an Indian woman?”
“A squaw is a whore,” said Josiah. “She don’t necessarily go looking fer other men, but when she wants a trinket or something that catches her eye, she’ll let the devil himself into her bed.”
Emma shuddered. Josiah’s voice was cold– almost as cold as the arctic winds outside their cabin.
“Surely, you don’t think that of all Indian women.”
“White or red, all women are the same,” said Josiah, his voice steeped in contempt. “When things git hard enough, they’ll sell their soul for a bite of meat and a warm blanket.”
“You just remember that yer my wife. You hear me, Emma? My woman is my own, and no one else’s.”
“I’ll remain faithful,” Emma said quietly. “You have no need to fear, Josiah.”
“I ain’t fearful. I’m just reminding.”
Emma was quiet.
“What happened while you were gone?” she asked finally. “You’re like a wounded animal, striking out at anything that comes near you. First it was Mary, and now you’re almost angry with me, and I’m not sure why.”
Josiah didn’t respond, and Emma could see he was thinking.
After a lengthy period of silence, he sighed heavily. “Reckon I was a fool to try and keep it from you. You know me too well, Emma. Sooner or later, you’d have figured it out, so I might as well tell you now, so you’ll stop trying to read my mind.”
Emma gently touched his arm. “What happened? Does it have something to do with your Hawken? You can tell me.”
Josiah stared at her a moment longer before speaking. “While I was hunting, I come across some Shoshones. One of them was yer admirer from before– the one who tried to take Mary. He was angry about losing you and Mary, and said he was going to kill me, if I didn’t give him my Hawken. I told him to do his worst, but I wasn’t handing over my rifle. Then he said that if I didn’t, he’d hunt you and Mary down, and take you while I wasn’t looking.” Emma saw Josiah swallow hard. “So I gave him my Hawken fer his old flintlock.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this, sooner?” asked Emma.
“I didn’t want to frighten you and Mary.”
Emma, however, felt anything but frightened. “Why, the terrible man! Threatening you like that! He makes me so angry, I could spit!”
Lightly touching Emma’s hand, Josiah sighed in relief. “I’m glad I told you, Emma. I don’t like keeping things from you, but I’m sorry you had to find out.”
Emma shook her head in disgust. “Just when I thought wickedness couldn’t get any lower, I’m proven wrong.”
Josiah reached for Emma, and she nestled against him.
“Thank you for telling me, Josiah. I want to share in your burdens, and be a good wife to you.” Emma kissed his cheek. “I love you,” she said in a tender whisper.
Drawing her even closer, Josiah tightly embraced Emma.
When Josiah awoke the next morning, Emma was still fast asleep. He nuzzled her neck for more affection, but she only stirred long enough to roll onto her side before slipping back to sleep.
Without being asked, Mary moved over so Josiah could sit down beside her. It was warmer in front of the fireplace than at the table, and since Emma wasn’t awake to insist on proper etiquette, the two ate cross-legged on a buffalo hide.
Wearily, Josiah rubbed the back of his neck as his jaw worked the tough meat in his mouth. He felt drained.
“You found no buffalo?” asked Mary, munching another bite of jerky.
Josiah glanced at the child, and decided to answer. “No, they’re long gone by now.”
“Will you get another Hawken?” she asked.
“I reckon not.”
“I can read,” she smiled proudly. “I can read all the way to the letter ‘Z.'”
“Can you read?” asked Mary.
Indistinctly mumbling something unfit for a child’s ears, Josiah stared at Mary. “You ask a lot of questions.”
Mary grinned happily. “I know.”
The sound of Emma slowly awakening caught Josiah’s attention, and he didn’t hear Mary’s next question. He quietly waited, wondering if Emma would be satisfied with the story he had given last night.
Josiah felt a tug on his sleeve. “What?” he asked the child, not moving his eyes from Emma.
“Will you go hunting soon?” asked Mary.
“When I’ve the mind to.”
“But, when?” asked Mary.
Groaning, Josiah turned to glare at Mary. “Why are you wanting to know?”
In spite of shrinking back, Mary’s expression remained unmoved. “I want to come with you.”
Josiah harrumphed. “That ain’t likely.”
“I can help,” said Mary. “I can shoot. I can help you.”
“When will you go hunting, again?” asked Emma, coming into the conversation with a marked note of sleepiness still in her voice.
His courage failing him, Josiah announced that he would leave after breakfast. He didn’t want to wait around to see if Emma still accepted his lie, for things might look differently to her in the full light of day. Lies were easier to believe when bodies were close together, and the promise of intimacy was present.
Emma looked disappointed by his news, though Josiah could discern no distrust in her face. When she joined him and Mary for breakfast, she even kissed him before sitting down. Josiah thoughtfully finished his meal. Emma had believed him.
Even though his falsehood remained safe, Josiah ached to escape the cabin once more. With Emma sitting on one side, and Mary on the other, he felt like a trapped bear, anxious for the freedom of the wilderness. His soul gave him no peace, and Josiah knew he could find rest, if he could just leave this crowded lodge.
“I had hoped you could stay longer, before going hunting again,” said Emma.
Distracted, Josiah grunted. What had she said? He hadn’t been paying attention.
“I suppose we need the food, though.”
Josiah felt Emma lean her head against his shoulder, her breakfast remaining untouched on her lap. He tore off a small bite, and then forced it into Emma’s mouth. “You need yer strength, Emma.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You look worn out,” said Josiah.
“You’re mostly to blame for that,” Emma smiled wearily.
Sighing, Emma unenthusiastically chewed the jerky.
“Last night, you felt weak in my arms,” said Josiah, his voice hushed even though Mary was sitting right there and could hear every word. “Are you sure nothing is ailing you?”
“Nothing that nine months won’t solve,” said Emma.
“What will happen in nine months?” asked Mary, her face peering at them curiously.
Josiah and Emma looked at each other. They had yet to speak to Mary of the baby. Emma was so early along, it would be easy for her to miscarry, and then they would have to explain the sad news to a five-year old.
When Emma told Mary of their news, the child jumped up and down, clapping her hands for joy. Josiah didn’t know why he was still there, when he had to get ready for another hunting trip. Before he could get to his feet, though, Mary plopped herself onto his lap to give him a great big hug.
It was an unexpected gesture, and Josiah didn’t know what to do with his arms. But when he felt the child hug him so trustingly, Josiah felt something stir inside him. Something protective and even tender. Was this what it felt like to be a father? Josiah didn’t know, but his arms wrapped around Mary, and he returned her hug.
After several moments, Josiah was ready to stop hugging Mary, but she seemed quite content to stay where she was.
“All right,” said Josiah, trying to pry the small arms from around his neck without damaging her, “I have to git going, so let go.”
Reluctantly, Mary obeyed, though she stayed in his lap until he transferred her to Emma.
“Hope that baby turns out to be a boy,” Josiah said as he stood up. “The women are outnumbering me as it is.”
Emma laughed softly, and before he knew it, Josiah found himself smiling. Then a shadow clouded his soul, and Josiah’s smile vanished.
“Are you sure you couldn’t delay hunting for a few days?” asked Emma. “You need the rest, Josiah.”
Afraid of betraying himself, Josiah turned his back to Emma to be sure she couldn’t read his face. “We need the meat.”
Josiah heard Emma sigh heavily.
“How long will you be gone this time?” she asked.
Shrugging, Josiah began packing some jerky into a heavy buffalo robe. “It depends,” he said busily. “I’ll chop firewood before I leave, though. I noticed yer getting low.”
Grabbing his axe, Josiah headed out the door without meeting Emma’s gaze.
This time, Josiah’s hunting trip only lasted the day, and he returned just before sundown. He was empty-handed, and in bad temper after finding no signs of game. But it wasn’t just his “bad luck” that Emma sensed bothered Josiah. Something was eating away at him from the inside. He had changed, and Emma couldn’t understand why.
That night, for the first time Emma could remember, Josiah resisted her caress.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
Josiah’s response was sullen and depressed. “Leave me be.”
Josiah hissed his impatience. “Shut up, Emma!”
Startled, Emma obeyed.
Kicking at the blankets, Josiah became frustrated when they tangled about his feet. He sat up to free himself, uttering something Emma couldn’t make out.
“You seemed anxious to get out of the cabin this morning,” said Emma.
Josiah glared at her, until Emma felt the small hairs on her arm stand on end.
Throwing back the blankets, Josiah stretched out on the buffalo robes to sleep. Emma bit her lip, wondering if she should press him further.
“Stop gaping at me, Emma.”
“I wasn’t gaping,” she said in self-defense.
Even in the half-darkness of the cabin, Emma could see the disgusted look on Josiah’s chiseled face.
“Are you angry with me, Josiah?”
Moaning, Josiah rubbed his face with the palm of his hand. “Reckon I’m more angry at myself, than with anyone else.”
“Why?” It was a simple question, though from the long stretch of silence that came afterward, Emma sensed that the answer wasn’t as simple.
Josiah opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came. He shut it again, turned onto his side, and then pulled up the blankets.
“Reckon I’m failing you and Mary,” he said finally. “I can’t find any game.”
“There’s still jerky left,” said Emma, guessing that Josiah was trying to put her off from the truth. Something else was bothering him, and it wasn’t fresh meat.
When it was obvious his answer hadn’t fooled her, Emma saw Josiah scowl, and she knew her opportunity was gone. There had been the briefest of moments where she thought he would actually tell her what was on his heart. But it was gone, and Emma was left to wonder and to pray.
Josiah knew he couldn’t keep going the way he had. Even his mountains offered him no peace. There was only one way he knew to rid himself of his burden, and that was to tell Emma. Forget God, and what the Bible said was right. He needed relief.
The afternoon of the next day, Emma started Mary on her lessons. The girl had been a fast learner, and Emma had picked up the pace at which she had been teaching her. Mary was ready for words, or at least very small ones, and so with Mary at her side, Emma opened their Bible and began to read. Every time Emma came across a small, easy word, she would pause as Mary sounded out the vowels and consonants. Words such as “the,” “to” and “it” kept slowing the progress of Emma’s reading, but Mary eagerly kept up.
“I am reading!” Mary said in awe, when they had come to the end of the passage. “Pa!” Mary looked across the cabin to where Josiah was brooding on his buffalo robes. “I can read!”
Josiah grunted, obviously preoccupied with his own thoughts.
Not wanting to dampen Mary’s victory, Emma gave her another hug, and then declared the rest of the day a holiday from lessons. The cabin filled with Mary’s excited clamor of how she was reading words, while Emma kept a silent watch on the man seated on the bed.
Josiah had a knife in one hand, and a stick in the other. He absently kept shaving wood from the stick, until nothing was left. Then Josiah would pick up another, and repeat the process.
As Emma watched Josiah, he looked up at her and their eyes met. He looked oppressed, as though carrying a burden that was too great for him. Emma’s heart went out to Josiah, but he remained silent, and turned his full attention back to the whittling stick.
That evening after supper, Emma sat beside the fireplace with her mending while Mary sleepily played with her dolls. It was nearing Mary’s bedtime, and Josiah waited for Emma to put the child to bed. Instead, Emma let Mary stay up a little later than usual.
Trying to ease his restlessness, Josiah pulled out his knife and began to work on another stick when he heard Emma announce that it was bedtime. Finally. Tossing the stick into the flames, Josiah waited as Emma got Mary ready for bed.
When Emma joined him on the buffalo robes several minutes later, she looked ready to fall asleep.
“I’ve been waiting to talk to you,” said Josiah, trying to stop Emma from lying down.
“Oh?” Emma tiredly sat up, covering her cold legs with the blankets. “What is it?”
Josiah fumbled with the fringe on his hunting shirt.
“Would you rather talk in the morning?” Emma asked with a stifled yawn.
“No, I–” Josiah stopped short. He sorely wished he didn’t have to go through with this. Going over his rationale one last time, Josiah let go of the leather fringe. “I ain’t making you any apologies, so don’t you go thinking that I am.”
“Do you recollect what I told you about how I lost my Hawken?” he asked.
“Yes, I remember.”
Josiah took a deep breath, trying to muster the courage he needed to get this over with. “Well, I didn’t exactly tell you the truth.”
Emma’s eyebrows raised in surprise.
“The Hawken was mine to do with as I wanted, so I traded it to that Shoshone I told you about. Traded it fer a night with his wife.”
Stunned, Emma’s mouth dropped open.
“That’s all I got to say,” said Josiah. “The only reason I’m telling you this, is because it’s been bothering me something fierce– though I don’t know why it should. A man’s got a right to find pleasure wherever he can, so like I said, I ain’t making any apologies.”
There. He had said it. Now he could rest at night, and not have this burden constantly vex him.
Then Josiah saw the tears come to Emma’s eyes, and she dropped to the buffalo robes in one great sob. To Josiah’s consternation, Mary woke up and looked at him with large frightened eyes.
“Go back to sleep,” said Josiah.
“Why is Ma crying?”
“Do as yer told!” Josiah gave Mary a stern look and the child quickly lay back down.
“How could you?” Emma said between sobs.
The muscles in Josiah’s jaw tightened. If Emma wanted to cry, then it was best to let her get it out of her system. There were things Emma would have to learn to accept, and this was one of them. Reclining on the robes, Josiah shut his eyes while Emma wept.
It was a long hard struggle, but Emma finally managed to stop the endless tears. Josiah had been unfaithful to her, and even worse, he wasn’t sorry. His callousness dumbfounded Emma, and she realized the extent of the hardness of his heart. She had known he was stubborn in his wickedness, but he was blatantly proving it to her in no uncertain terms.
And this was her husband!
“Lord,” Emma prayed silently, “I am innocent of Josiah’s sin. Let my innocency stand before You, to remind You of Your promise to me. ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.’ [Acts 16:31] Josiah is part of my house, Lord. In Your righteous anger over his sins, remember me. In wrath, remember mercy. [Habakkuk 3:2] Save him, Lord. Save my husband.”
Even so, stronger faith didn’t stop the hurt in Emma’s heart, and she let herself cry until she had no more strength for tears.
The morning after his revelation, Josiah was the first one awake. He remained in bed, waiting for Emma to stir. She had cried for most of the night, and he had been unable to get much sleep.
Before long, Mary sat up in bed and blinked at Josiah. The girl must’ve sensed something important was happening, for she remained absolutely still– not even venturing from her bed to find breakfast.
Making up his mind that Emma had had enough rest, Josiah finally nudged his wife. “Time you got up, Emma.”
Two swollen eyes fluttered open, and Josiah winced inwardly when he saw how exhausted she appeared. Her cheeks were tearstained, and her face showed great strain.
“I need more sleep,” Emma said weakly. “Will you make sure Mary has breakfast?”
Josiah gave Emma a curt nod. He didn’t want to show too much concern for Emma’s present state, for that would be like an admission of guilt. Still, it was hard to admit she looked normal.
Emma closed her eyes, and Josiah lightly tucked the blanket up over her shoulders. He hoped things could get back to the way they were, before the Shoshones had come to these mountains.
Climbing out of bed, Josiah went to get some buffalo jerky for himself and Mary. The small girl sat with him before the fireplace, silent as a mouse. Her face held many questions, though she was too timid to ask.
“Yer ma and I had a fight,” Josiah said a little defensively. “I ain’t knowing yet, but it might not be over.”
Swallowing her food, Mary stared at the ground thoughtfully. Her small shoulders heaved with a sigh.
“I reckon there won’t be any lessons today,” said Josiah. “You can keep busy on yer own, can’t you?”
Mary solemnly nodded “yes.”
It was Josiah’s turn to sigh. His insides felt heavy. He had hoped to find relief by telling Emma about the Shoshone woman, but relief had yet to come. Why was this time so different? Hadn’t he bought women before? After all, he was no youngster, struggling under the guilt of his first whore. At the memory, Josiah touched the eagle feather in his hair. Josiah’s first feather had been given to him by his pa, as a symbol of Josiah’s coming of age. This feather meant more to him, though, for it was Emma’s.
Josiah waited all morning for Emma to wake up. Around the center of the day, she finally crawled out of bed, insisting she felt well enough to fix lunch.
“I’m not an invalid,” Emma said stoutly. She moved about the cabin to set things in order, and then prepared another of the rabbits Josiah had caught.
Mutely, Josiah watched Emma. Could she put the incident behind her and pretend nothing had happened? Emma was consistently avoiding his gaze, and Josiah hoped this wasn’t a bad sign.
After lunch, Emma asked Josiah over to the table to discuss something important.
Uneasily, Josiah seated himself at the table. Emma sat across from him, her hands folded on the rough tabletop.
“I have one question to ask,” said Emma. She gazed at him stoically, and Josiah was unable to read her expression. “Will you answer it truthfully?”
Slumping back in his split-bottom chair, Josiah harrumphed. “I don’t lie.”
“You lied to me about how you lost your Hawken.”
Josiah had to admit Emma had him on that one. “I’ll be truthful,” he said.
“Do I have your word on it?”
Josiah scowled resentfully. “Will my word mean anything to you?”
“Do I have it?“
“Yes, I’ll answer truthfully.”
Emma gazed at Josiah, and he saw fear in her eyes. He knew she was afraid of the answer to her one question, and he waited to hear what that question was.
“Will you promise me to honor our marriage bed?” asked Emma. “Will you give me your solemn word that you’ll be faithful to me?”
Now Josiah understood why Emma looked so frightened. She already knew the answer.
“Yer forgetting yer place, Emma.”
“Will you promise me?”
“I own you, woman, and not the other way around.”
“Please, I beg you, Josiah. Promise me.”
“I’m yer husband, and if that ain’t enough, I’m bigger than you.”
“I can’t live like this, Josiah.”
Emma laughed mournfully. “Leave? Where would I go? You’ve brought me to this barren wilderness, and now I’ve nowhere to go!”
“That’s right,” said Josiah. “You got no choice.”
Emma sat up straight in her chair. “You’re wrong. I have a choice.”
Josiah narrowed his eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“If you refuse to be faithful, then I refuse to share your bed.”
“You can’t do that!” Josiah sat bolt-upright, his hand coming down on the table so violently, it threatened to fall apart. “I won’t allow it! You hear me, Emma? I won’t allow it!”
“You can force me,” said Emma, “but I don’t think you will. I know you’re bigger than me, but the only way to stop me, is to beat me.” Emma leveled a steady gaze at Josiah. “And I don’t think you’ll do that.”
“Yer taking a mighty big chance.”
Emma was silent, but she didn’t look as though she feared for her safety.
Josiah tried to swallow, and found his mouth had gone completely dry. Balling his hand into a fist, he stared at it in deliberation. “I won’t beat you,” he said finally. “You already know I won’t.”
“From now on, I’ll sleep in Mary’s bed,” said Emma.
Josiah smiled grimly. “There ain’t much room fer you in that pint-sized bed of hers. You and Mary take our bed,” he sighed in resignation. “I’ll bed down, elsewhere.”
Emma looked at Josiah, and then nodded in agreement.
Josiah noticed Emma’s bottom lip trembled, and she looked as though she were fighting back tears.
“You don’t have to do this, Emma.”
“Yes, I do.”
“I still love you,” said Josiah. “That hasn’t changed.”
When Emma didn’t respond, Josiah shook his head bitterly. “At least yer still calling me by name, Emma. Thanks fer that, anyway.” He pushed back from the table with a loud groan. “Mary, git yer dolls over to Emma’s bed. From now on, yer sleeping with yer ma.”
Ignoring Mary’s happy smiles upon hearing this new sleeping arrangement, Josiah swore within himself. He cursed the Shoshone woman for accepting his mirror and knife, and railed at God for turning Emma against him. All along, Josiah had been afraid of losing Emma, and now God had fulfilled his fears.
That night, after everyone had gone to bed, Josiah tossed on his buffalo robe, trying in vain to get to sleep. After several minutes of failure, Josiah sat up, staring at the large, comfortable bed across the fireplace. He had layered several robes for Emma’s comfort, only to find himself banished from his own bed!
Cursing his bad luck, Josiah drowsily rubbed his face. Emma was already asleep, though her arms were empty. Mary was resting on the far side of the bed, leaving Emma all by herself. Josiah frowned, for he knew Emma didn’t like sleeping alone.
The next morning, Josiah took Mary outside to fetch water. Before returning to Emma with the full bucket, he took the child to one side.
“Would you do me a big favor, Mary?”
Surprised, Mary looked at Josiah warily.
“I need you to look after Emma at bedtime. If she starts to crying, give her a hug. And when you can see she’s lonesome, let her snuggle with you. Would you do that fer me?”
Josiah gave one of her braids a playful tug. “I owe you.”
Mary smiled sadly, for by now Josiah guessed she had an idea of what was going on. He and Emma hadn’t exactly discussed things in whispers over the table, and now Mary went about with the same downcast expression as everyone else. It couldn’t be helped, for the cabin was so small, secrets were almost impossible to keep for very long.
Suppertime finished off the last rabbit, and Josiah knew he had to go hunting tomorrow. The land South of here was a good place to search for elk and mule deer, but it would mean leaving Emma behind for several days at a time.
Lifting his head, Josiah saw Mary snuggling against Emma. Emma must be lonely, for Mary was following his directions to the letter.
Sighing, Josiah leaned back against the warm hide. They needed a change. His mind made up, the mountain man struggled to find sleep.
Emma was thankful for Mary’s thoughtfulness, for the child had cuddled and hugged her all night long, just when Emma had needed it most. It was hard to be away from Josiah, knowing that he only slept a few feet away. She yearned for the quiet moments they had shared on many long nights, when a simple touch was enough to let the other know they weren’t alone.
At breakfast, Josiah handed Emma a tin cup of hot broth, in an obvious attempt to curry favor. She quietly thanked him, and after praying, sipped down the rich meal. As if to test his boundaries, Josiah took a seat snug against her, unwittingly prompting her to move until they no longer touched.
“We’re leaving,” said Josiah. “I’m taking you and Mary with me to the foothills South of here. There ain’t enough game in the valley to tide us over until spring, so we have to hunt elsewhere.”
“Will we come back to the cabin?” asked Emma.
“We will, when we have enough meat so we won’t starve.”
Emma nodded in understanding. She didn’t know how much longer their dried meat would hold out, though she hadn’t thought they were in any immediate danger. However, Josiah was having difficulty finding game, and if they relied heavily on their store of buffalo jerky, it would disappear quickly enough.
After eating, Josiah placed the remainder of their jerky into the cooking kettle, before wrapping everything in several buffalo robes for transport. When Emma tried to add her Bible to the pack, Josiah protested.
“I ain’t hauling that heavy book around, Emma. It’s just dead weight.”
Even though Emma struggled not to cry, salty tears stung her eyes. She knew Josiah was right. This was survival, and she could only afford to take the barest of necessities. They didn’t even have a horse to carry them where they needed to go, so they had to travel as light as possible.
Taking the Bible from Emma, Josiah placed it into the buffalo robe alongside the jerky. “Don’t start crying again. I’ll tote it fer you.”
Emma stared at him in surprise. “Are you sure, Josiah? It is rather heavy.”
Josiah nodded brusquely. “I’m sure. You ain’t bringing anything else, though. You just had yer limit.”
Knowing he had ulterior motives for this act of kindness, Emma restrained herself. “Thank you, Josiah. I appreciate it.”
“What about my dolls?” asked Mary, tightly hugging her two friends.
“They stay,” said Josiah.
Timidly, Mary came forward, beckoning for Josiah to bend down. She whispered something into his ear.
Straightening, Josiah rubbed the back of his neck. “What do you women think I am, a pack mule?”
Mary hung her head, disappointedly.
Groaning in protest, Josiah made a concession. “One doll only.”
Mary brightened momentarily, before again looking distressed. Emma knew she was wondering which friend to leave behind, but Emma was surprised that Josiah had agreed to take any dolls at all. Musing to herself, Emma wondered what Mary had whispered into Josiah’s ear.
Since the Blackfoot figurine was wooden, and the Christmas doll was made from light cloth, Mary set her treasured Indian companion on the table to await their return.
They had to take knives, weapons, powder, shot, sinew rope, axe, the single tin cup, and Josiah’s bullet mold so he could fashion more bullets. To this, Josiah added a small leather pouch with his flint and steel for making fires.
Everyone had to haul something. Mary was responsible for her pistol, Emma was to carry her shotgun and not wear herself out, and Josiah was to bring everything else. Emma knew Josiah was a strong man, but she didn’t see how he could possibly manage without a horse.
While Emma watched, Josiah took two long poles, binding them at the top to form a sturdy “V.” Between the poles he wove a netting made of sinew rope. When the bundle of supplies and buffalo robes were packed and ready, Josiah placed the heavy burden into the netting. Emma learned this was called a travois [pronounced trav oi’], and Josiah would drag it across the snow as one would use a wagon. It was a clever contraption Emma had seen Indians use behind their horses, only Josiah would pull this travois by hand.
Weapon loaded, and snowshoes strapped on, Emma followed Josiah out into the cold winter air.
With her pistol tucked into her belt like a small mountain man, Mary couldn’t stop grinning. They were leaving the cabin, and it was obvious she longed for the wide open spaces of the outdoors. Emma, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic. Those four walls were a whole lot safer than nothing, and Emma prayed they could soon return.
Josiah slipped on the shoulder harness to the travois. Bracing himself against its weight, he pulled their supplies across the snow.
Following behind, Emma watched the flintlock swung over Josiah’s shoulder, as it moved back and forth with the sway of its new owner. His eagle feather fluttered in the wind, before tangling in long rough locks of hair. Josiah hadn’t removed her token yet, and its continued presence gave Emma a small measure of hope.
Emma sighed longingly. If only Josiah could love her enough to be faithful.