Don’t forgot to read – A Holiday for Emma – Chapter 11
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The rustle of tree boughs awoke Josiah from his slumber. Daylight filtered through the small opening of the lodge, silhouetting the small figure sitting by his bed. Awake from her nap, Mary sat cross-legged by the blanket that covered him and Emma, evidently waiting for them to get up.
Josiah yawned, and Mary’s head bobbed up from where she had been drawing patterns in the fur of a buffalo robe. The girl smiled at him, her eyes going to the bare shoulders of the woman sleeping on his chest.
“Mind yer business,” Josiah said in a low voice.
Faintly smiling, Mary stared at him thoughtfully. “Will I ever have a husband, Pa?”
“I reckon– when yer older. Keep yer voice down, Mary, or you’ll wake yer ma.”
“When will I have a husband?”
“When yer older. Now hush up, so you don’t wake Emma.”
Josiah sighed heavily, then checked to see if he had disturbed Emma. He hadn’t, and she continued to sleep soundly.
“Will my husband be white?”
Puzzled, Josiah stared at his daughter. “Why are you asking that?”
“Am I white or Blackfoot?”
“Then will I live with the Blackfoot, or with the white man?”
Josiah scowled. “How should I know?”
As Josiah saw Mary’s face deep in thought, he guessed the coming summer would be her sixth. He had known Mary’s mother in autumn, so the child would have been born in mid-summer. By the looks of Mary’s studied expression, there was a lot of thought swirling around in that small head.
“Yer grandma’am wants you to live with the white man,” said Josiah, “but as long as you marry a Christian, I won’t make you go one way or the other.”
Mary kept silent for a long while before finally looking at him with serious eyes. “I want to live in a white man’s cabin and have eight babies, like Ma.”
Josiah chuckled softly.
In spite of Mary’s thoughtful questions, Josiah felt a little anxious about awakening Emma. “I’ll answer one more question, Mary, then I want you to keep quiet.”
“Is Ma cold?” Mary lifted the deerskin dress Emma had left beside the buffalo robes.
From where he lay amongst thick buffalo hides, blankets, and the contact of Emma in his arms, Josiah smiled. “No, Ma ain’t cold.”
With a small groan, Emma stirred long enough to raise her head and kiss him. Concealing themselves from Mary’s view, Josiah pulled the blanket back over their heads.
In the darkness of their tent, Josiah felt Emma’s breath against his face as she spoke in a hushed whisper. “Is Mary awake?”
The nape of Emma’s neck felt good to Josiah’s lips, and he hated to tell her the truth. “She’s awake.”
“We’d better stop, Josiah.”
“Let me kiss you awhile longer, Emma, and then I’ll let you go.” Josiah didn’t wait for Emma’s answer, and the two kissed beneath the blankets while they heard Mary eat her supper.
By the time the two came out of hiding, Mary had finished her meal. She looked at them with a happy smile, and Josiah felt relief when she didn’t bother him with more questions about being white or red, or what kind of a husband she would have.
Supper slid down Emma’s throat without much trouble, and Josiah thanked God when it stayed in her stomach.
The skies grew dark with the onset of night, and the snows began to fall more heavily than before. Their fire stoked against the cold, Josiah pulled Emma close to his side as wind whipped past their entrance. Here in these rocks, the wind made a hauntingly mournful sound as it passed over the mountainside on its way to wherever the wind travels.
Everyone had difficulty finding sleep that night, and Josiah heard Mary’s whimpers from the other side of the fire where she lay tucked in bed.
“Josiah,” Emma tugged at his sleeve, “couldn’t she sleep with us, tonight?”
Josiah groaned as the wind howled over their shelter.
Lifting his head to see how Mary fared, Josiah saw the girl huddled beneath her blankets with her doll clutched in a tight hug. “Mary,” he asked, hoping the child would turn him down, “do you want to sleep over here, with me and Emma?”
“Yes!” Mary kicked off her blankets and hurried to the buffalo robes before Josiah had a chance to talk her into staying put.
“Stop and wait a moment,” said Josiah, as Mary tried to squeeze between him and Emma, “you sleep on the other side of yer ma. This side is mine.”
“Josiah, that’s hardly any way to speak to a frightened child,” said Emma, as Mary squirmed her way beneath the heavy blankets beside Emma.
A strong gust of wind buffeted the lodge until it rattled violently, causing Mary to whimper.
“There, there,” Josiah heard Emma soothe Mary.
The low gentle tones of Emma’s comforting voice made Josiah feel as though he were beside the fire with the flames warming his face. The wind wailed something fierce, but he didn’t give it much notice. The warmth of Emma’s body and the sunshine in her voice filled his senses, so that he moved even closer to his wife. He tucked her head under his chin, grinning when they fit together perfectly.
“Oh, Em,” he breathed, “on a night like this, I could believe we’re the only ones in all these mountains.” He moved until Emma’s face came into view, reflections of firelight dancing in the liquid depths of her eyes. “There ain’t no white man’s world, and there ain’t no Blackfoot world– just this lodge with you tucked beside me. I ain’t never been so peaceful than I am right now.” He claimed Emma’s mouth, moaning his satisfaction until Emma breathlessly pulled away.
“Mary’s with us,” said Emma, her voice sounding a gentle warning.
“So she is,” grinned Josiah. He tried to kiss Emma, but she resisted and he finally had to settle with staring into her face from his close vantage.
A gust of wind blew through the entrance, fighting with their night fire and threatening to extinguish its flames.
“All right,” sighed Josiah, “if you want to sleep between me and yer ma, I won’t stop you.”
With a small shout of victory, Mary scrambled over Emma until she wedged herself between the two adults.
Something with the texture of cloth found its way into Josiah’s face, and he swiped it away to find Mary’s Christmas doll.
“I ain’t sharing my bed with no child’s doll. Mary, toss it aside.”
Emma touched his hand. “Please, Josiah, its her baby.”
Reluctantly stuffing the doll beneath the blankets beside Mary, Josiah saw the girl smile happily.
“I tell you, Emma, things is falling apart in a bad way, when a man’s forced to share his space with little girl things.”
“Oh, hush up,” smiled Emma, “you’ve never been so peaceful, as you just finished telling me, yourself.”
“That was before the doll.”
As Josiah spoke, something sounded in the wind– something that hadn’t been there before. Josiah sat up in bed, his hand instinctively reaching for his rifle. He strained to hear more clearly but found it impossible to do against the loud wind.
“What is it?” asked Emma.
“I ain’t knowing yet,” Josiah said in a low voice. “Did you hear it, Emma?”
“Mary, how about you?” he asked. “Did you hear anything different just now?”
Tossing aside the blankets, Josiah crawled to the entrance. The sound had disappeared now, but something made his gut tighten.
Slightly turning his head toward Emma, he found her sitting up in bed and staring at him in concern. “You’re scaring me, Josiah.”
“You sure you didn’t hear it, Emma?”
Emma shook her head. “I can’t hear anything but you and Mary and this terrible wind.”
“I could’ve swore I heard–” Josiah left his thought unfinished. It wouldn’t do to scare the girls, especially when he couldn’t be certain. “I’m coming back to bed, so you women better scoot over and make some room fer me.”
The next morning, after instructing Emma to keep her and Mary inside, Josiah left the shelter with his rifle. Last night’s sound had come from the North– the same direction as his cabin. He felt no anxiety over the cabin, but a feeling in his gut told him something had happened last night.
Hiking over the deep snow, Josiah tried to calm the unsettling sensation creeping up his spine. He had a vague sense of unease, and then it suddenly occurred to him: there were no birds in the sky. Josiah halted. He didn’t remember hearing a single bird the entire morning.
Pulling off his cap, Josiah squatted down on his snowshoes. He brought his rifle across his lap, giving himself a chance to feel out his surroundings.
“I ain’t liking this, God,” he mumbled into the air. Sunlight glinted off the snow until his eyes hurt, but Josiah saw nothing out of place.
Straightening, the mountain man resumed his pace. He pulled some pemmican from the pouch at his belt, all the while keeping his senses trained on the way before him.
Then the report of a rifle pierced the air, causing Josiah to scramble for cover. The gunshot echoed off the mountainsides, and Josiah nervously looked up at the snow packed summit above him. Another shot like that, and it might start an avalanche.
Josiah eyed the terrain, but saw no one. The gunshot had come from the North, and Josiah guessed he hadn’t been the target. Venturing forward, he kept a ready lookout for trouble. If someone shared this mountain with him, Josiah wanted to know.
Coming to a narrow precipice, Josiah picked his way through the snow and rocks. As he cautiously found safe footing, the report of a second gunshot filled the air. An earsplitting crack sounded above him! Driven by sheer instinct and something that quickened his spirit as well as his feet, Josiah leaped from the precipice to take shelter below the overhang. A split second later, a wall of solid white flooded past his shelter, sucking the air from his lungs.
Josiah didn’t know how he managed to take in more air, but he did and held it for as long as he could before pulling in another breath. He squeezed his back against the mountain, waiting for the worst of the avalanche to be over. This cleft in the rocks proved to be a godsend to Josiah, for as the avalanche finished spilling from overhead, he realized he had come through it unscathed.
But Josiah had little time to thank God for his safety, for another sound greeted his ears. They were the cries of a man.
Feeling a great sense of urgency, Josiah sprang into the snow, jumping from one foot to the other as he hurried with snowshoes strapped to his feet.
“Help me!” the voice pleaded at the top of his lungs in perfect English. “Please, God, help me!“
Following the sound of the cries, Josiah half climbed and half slid down the mountain through the loose snow.
“Will!” cried the voice, “where are you?”
As the man’s voice grew near, Josiah knew he didn’t have far to go. Instead of blindly rushing forward, Josiah slowed his pace; only a fool rushed in blindly, when he should’ve been careful.
At the bottom of the mountain, Josiah saw the top half of a man sticking out from the snow. He had been caught in the avalanche, his waist and legs hidden in packed ice.
“Will? That you, Will?” asked the man, squinting against the sun. “No, it can’t be,” the man muttered to himself. “Will’s not that tall, and he’s–” As though suddenly coming to the realization that Josiah wasn’t Will, the man frantically began searching about for something.
Josiah guessed he looked for his rifle.
As Josiah approached, he saw the man’s slender face and a sparse beard that betrayed youth. The sash of his half open capote flapped wildly in the breeze, but the man made no move to secure the sash and close his coat. He stared at Josiah, as if already frozen. The wind ripped back the hood of his capote, revealing a thick mop of brown hair. Josiah groaned. Why, this man was still a boy!
The man looked about once more, and as Josiah followed his gaze, they both saw the barrel of a rifle protruding from the snow. The young man lunged for his weapon; snow buried him to his waist, and he whimpered helplessly when he couldn’t reach far enough for the rifle.
“If you’re going to kill me,” the man breathed in panicked spasms, “be merciful and get it over with quickly!”
“I ain’t going to kill you,” said Josiah, surveying the man’s predicament with a knowing eye. “You need to get yerself dug out of that ice real soon, afore you freeze to death.”
The man said nothing, but continued to stare at Josiah.
Shouldering the strap of his flintlock, Josiah took off his snowshoes. Using a snowshoe like a shovel, Josiah dropped to his knees to dig the man out. All too soon, Josiah heard the loud chatter of teeth as cold permeated the man’s body.
The snow had packed him in hard, and Josiah wished for something more solid than his snowshoes to use for digging. Battered into pieces until useless, the snowshoes disintegrated one by one.
“I think I’m dying,” the young man said finally.
“Who are you?” asked Josiah.
“G-George,” he answered through violently chattering teeth.
“You got a last name to go with that?” Josiah threw away the last bits of his snowshoes to dig with his knife. “Keep talking, youngster.”
“Y-youngster?” George gasped in indignation. “L-look who’s t-talking! You c-can’t be m-much older.”
“I’m a sight older than you,” chuckled Josiah. “I reckon yer not yet twenty. That makes me at least ten winters wiser than you. I’m thinking even a child would know better than to set off an avalanche. At the rate yer going, you’ll be doing good if this winter ain’t yer last.”
When Josiah didn’t hear a response, he paused to shake George by the shoulder to keep him awake.
“What’s yer last name?” asked Josiah, resuming his frantic digging.
“I c-can’t remember,” chattered the young man. Then, after a moment’s thought, he finally answered, “Hughes. My name’s Hughes.”
“I almost got you free,” said Josiah, sheathing his knife as he stepped around George. Hooking his arms under the man’s shoulders, Josiah lifted him from his living tomb of ice and snow.
The young man shivered on the ground in his wet clothes, and Josiah quickly hauled him from the shadows and into the full sunlight. After pulling off the unfortunate man’s wet clothing, Josiah hurried out of his own bearskin coat to give it to George.
Then Josiah sat down and moved George onto his lap to insulate him from the frozen ground. Wrapping his arms about the shivering man, he let his body warm the bearskin coat.
“Let’s have a look at yer feet and see if frostbite got to any of yer toes,” said Josiah, tugging off the man’s store bought boots. “I know they ain’t much to look at right now, but you ain’t hurt too much. You should’ve seen a few of my toes some winters back. They got to rotting so badly, I severed them with my knife, rather than let the gangrene finish me off.”
George looked faint, and Josiah quickly braced him with his arm.
“You ain’t got much starch in you, to rattle so easily. Get a hold of yerself, and gather yer wits. Yer doing better than you should, so you’ve got no call to act like this.”
“Will–” the man said, his memory gradually returning to him as his temperature warmed, “I’ve got to go back for Will.”
Josiah narrowed his eyes. He had thought all this talk of Will had been the delirium of a freezing man.
“He’s back up the mountain somewhere. I promised I’d come back after I found help.”
“Which way?” Josiah’s eyes followed the direction George pointed. “By the by, did you fire yer rifle last night? I thought I heard something of an avalanche.”
George nodded. “I hoped it might attract attention.”
Josiah chuckled, but not from jest. “You’d be minus a scalp if the Blackfoot had been nearby.”
Fear swept across George’s face. “Blackfoot! This is Blackfoot country? Heaven help us! I didn’t think we were this far North!” He suspiciously looked Josiah over, as if to discern his loyalties. “Are you going to help my friend?”
“How many others are there? Yer trappers, ain’t you? I know the faces of many of the mountain men in these parts, but I ain’t familiar with yers.”
“It’s just me and Will Shaw,” said George. “This is our first season trapping. We heard tales that the beaver were so plentiful in the North, they made men rich in pelts.”
Josiah harrumphed. “Beaver ain’t so plentiful, anymore.”
“We hoped to winter near good hunting grounds,” said George, “to start our spring trapping before everyone else.”
Standing George on his feet, Josiah stretched himself to his full height. It came as no surprise to Josiah when George’s head only came to his chin, for very few were as tall as him.
Bringing his rifle around, Josiah automatically checked its priming. “Not many white men visit these mountains and live to tell about it.”
“I’ll help him, but then you have to leave. I ain’t exactly on good terms with the Blackfoot, and if they find white men with me…” Josiah hesitated. “I reckon I’ve already had my last warning. As soon as yer clothes are dry, we’ll set out.”
The sun shone high above their heads as Josiah followed the young man up the mountain. Their progress slowed when they reached snow so deep it came to their knees, and it required great effort to take each step.
Every so often, George cast a wary glance over his shoulder, as if unsure what would happen if he took his eyes off Josiah for very long.
Finally, after several minutes, George broke the silence. “Are you–” he stammered awkwardly, “are you an–“
“An Indian?” finished Josiah. He had been preparing for just such a question. “My ma is Blackfoot, but my pa was white.”
The young man’s shoulders stiffened. “A half-breed,” he mumbled, “and a Blackfoot one, at that.”
They went on in silence, and Josiah braced himself for some kind of disparaging remark about his mixed heritage. The hesitant glance that told him he couldn’t be entirely trusted, the haughty brow that put him in his place– subtle and not-so subtle clues that he didn’t quite fit in, didn’t belong. How would this man, this George Hughes, accept his presence? Josiah didn’t know.
“I’ve never met a–” George hesitated, then proceeded very cautiously, “someone like you before.”
Josiah didn’t respond. He could sense George’s unease, and both men continued on their way without another word on the subject.
High on the mountainside, they came to a pile of windblown rocks. George scanned their surroundings, and then helplessly looked to Josiah for guidance. “I got all turned about in the blizzard, and I don’t know where I left Will.”
Groaning, Josiah rested his flintlock in the crook of his arm. “What are you looking at me fer? If you don’t know where you left him, how should I?”
George stared at him blankly, obviously not knowing what to say.
Josiah shook his head. He asked a few questions to mine the young man’s memory, and then took the lead position with George following at his back.
The sun threatened to sink behind the Rocky Mountains just as the small entrance to a snow cave caught Josiah’s eye. Tracks led to and from the opening, but he saw no one.
“Will’s leg is hurt,” said George, hurrying past Josiah. “I made him a bed, and he’s resting as much as possible.”
“That you, George?” called a voice from within the snow cave.
Getting down on all fours, George crawled inside. “I brought help, Will!”
Crouching by the narrow opening, Josiah peered into the shelter. A disheveled man with a thickly whiskered face lay bundled in a buffalo robe. He had raven black hair peppered with some white, and he looked much older than young George. Josiah judged this man to be about his ma’s age, about fifty.
When he saw Josiah, a shotgun suddenly appeared from the buffalo robe.
“Don’t, Will!” said George. “He’s all right!”
“That’s not likely,” said Will, his voice steeled with distrust. “Just look at him, George.” Will motioned to Josiah with his shotgun. “Let me see your hands, stranger.”
Josiah didn’t budge.
“He’s here to help,” said George.
Will spat at the snow. “I’ll be the judge of that. Let’s see your hands, stranger, or I’ll blow a hole through your middle big enough to see sky.”
Slowly, Josiah moved his rifle to his lap.
“Give me that flintlock,” said Will.
Grinning broadly until his teeth were barred, Josiah’s hands locked around the rifle in his lap. “Only a fool’d give up his weapon, when he don’t have to.”
“You’re forgetting something, stranger. I have a rifle trained on you.”
Josiah took his time before speaking. “Yer friend looks to be in fine shape, George. I’ll be going now.”
“Wait!” George grabbed at Josiah’s arm.
In one small movement, Josiah leveled his flintlock at George’s belly. Josiah heard both hammers cock on Will’s shotgun, and everyone froze where they were.
“George, I wouldn’t do such things if you want to go on living,” said Josiah, slowly lowering his weapon. “A man’s likely to get himself kilt, surprising someone with a loaded rifle that way.”
With an anguished face, George implored Josiah for help. “Please, Will’s leg is broken and now it’s turning color!”
The wind expelled from Josiah’s lungs. He looked back to Will, who still had a cocked shotgun aimed in his direction. Will no longer looked as ready to pull the trigger as he had a few moments before, but fear still flashed in his eyes.
“Are you wanting my help?” asked Josiah. “If you do, lay aside yer weapon. I got kin waiting on me, and they’ll worry if I ain’t home by dark.”
Distrust of Indians must’ve run deep in Will, for he didn’t move. Not one inch.
“Go back to your kin,” Will said finally, keeping his rifle trained on Josiah. “I’m obliged for your offer, but I’ll take my chances with George.”
Josiah sighed heavily. Turning his head, he saw the retreating light over the Rockies. “It’ll be yer death,” said Josiah, looking back to the man in the buffalo robe. “You ain’t got much chance of living without me. Put down that shotgun.”
Will shook his head. “How do I know you won’t lift my scalp the moment I’m unarmed?”
Visibly disappointed, George took a desperate measure. He placed a hand on Will’s leg.
A howl of pain filled the air! Will’s rifle harmlessly fell on his lap as he went to remove George’s hand from his injured leg.
Not wasting his opportunity, George picked up the shotgun. He gave both Will’s rifle, and his own, to Josiah. “Will you help us?” George asked Josiah.
The gesture of trust made Josiah smile. “You can keep yer weapon, but I’ll take his.”
“What’d you go and do that for, George?” Face reddened with pain, Will glared at his young friend. “Now we’re both gonners!” Then he saw George still had his rifle. The confused man turned his gaze on Josiah. “Pain must be playing tricks with my eyes, or I must be nearer Heaven’s gates than I thought.”
“You’ll be a lot closer to those gates, if you don’t take care of that leg,” said Josiah. “George, crawl out of there so I can fit myself in.”
With a thankful grin, the young man obeyed and crawled from the snow cave.
The entrance was very narrow, and Josiah’s shoulders were very broad. Unable to fit himself through the opening, Josiah dug at the snow to make it wider.
Will cautiously stared at Josiah as he knelt beside him.
“Let’s have a look at yer leg,” said Josiah, first placing the rifles safely out of Will’s reach. Leaning over, Josiah pulled back the robe. The stench of rotting flesh filled the shelter.
“It’s even worse than the last time I checked,” Will said in despair. “I had a feeling these mountains would be the death of me.”
“You ain’t dead– at least, not yet.” Josiah sat on his heels, his eyes on the gaping wound.
“Let me have a look,” said George, his head peering over Josiah’s shoulder. When George saw the wound, the color rushed from his face and Josiah put out a steadying hand to keep him from fainting.
Will groaned heavily. “Go sit outside, George. Let me talk to the Indian, alone.”
Josiah slanted Will an amused look. This white man probably couldn’t tell one tribe from another, let alone recognize a half-breed when he stared him full in the face. And he was.
With George safely out of the way, Josiah spoke in a low voice so he wouldn’t be overheard. “Yer leg has to come off.”
Will swallowed hard. “I figured as much.”
“The bone ain’t broke– it’s shattered,” said Josiah. “There ain’t no mending a shattered leg, even if the gangrene hadn’t gotten to yer flesh.”
“I suppose this way it makes things easier,” Will chuckled darkly. “I have to lose my leg, and there’s nothing else to be done.”
“I ain’t got nothing but my knife,” said Josiah, lowering his voice even more. “It’s sharp, but it won’t cut through the bone too good.”
“We’ve got something that might help,” said Will. “George,” he asked in a loud voice, “where’s that axe?”
Instead of answering, Josiah and Will heard a thump in the snow.
George had passed out.
From inside their warm shelter, Emma looked up at the darkened sky once more. She prayed to see Josiah coming over the rise, grinning as he usually did upon seeing her face after a journey.
At Emma’s side sat Mary, her pistol resting in her lap in case of trouble. Emma smiled in spite of the situation, knowing where Mary had learned her posturing. It was so like Josiah.
Once more, the girl’s sharp eyesight and steady voice assured Emma that she saw no one, and once more, Emma prayed as hard as she could for Josiah’s safety. Earlier that morning, they had heard the loud sounds of what Mary had thought had been an avalanche, and it took every scrap of Emma’s faith not to go searching for her husband.
Hours later, when the skies had grown dark with night, Emma wrestled with anxiety. She prayed Josiah’s absence had nothing to do with being buried alive.
“It’s snowing again,” said Mary, her voice dull with disappointment.
Closing her eyes, Emma prayed with Mary. “God, help Josiah to be safe and warm right now. Cause him to return to us, tomorrow.”
A long night lay ahead Josiah. When morning at last forced its way into the clouded sky, its dim light found Josiah slumped against the wall of a snow cave. His eyes flickered open. Will lay beside him, wrapped in a buffalo robe, a single booted foot sticking out at the other end.
A yawn behind Josiah’s back told him George would soon be asking the same question he had asked over and over the night before.
“Is he alive, Josiah?”
Touching his hand to Will’s neck, Josiah grunted. “He’s alive.”
“Do you think he’ll die?”
“I reckon he’ll make it,” said Josiah, nudging George out of the entrance where the young man had slept with a buffalo robe. Stretching his long legs, Josiah looked out over the mountainside. More snow had fallen during the night, and from the sky, more would soon come. Warming his hands over the fire outside the cave, Josiah felt hunger nagging at his belly.
“I thought the night would never end,” sighed George, his face still pale from exhaustion.
“When’s the last time you had anything to eat?” asked Josiah.
“I haven’t had anything since Will got hurt,” said George, keeping the buffalo robe tightly about his frame.
That’s what Josiah had thought. His fingers dug into the small bag at his belt, producing a clump of pemmican. Taking his blackened knife, Josiah divided it in two. He handed the larger half to George, and the young man ate without question.
“My knife’s ruint,” said Josiah, returning the dull blade to the sheath at his side. He had used it to cauterize the stump of Will’s leg, and now it had no edge.
“I can replace your knife with mine,” said George, his hand going to his boot where he evidently had a knife hidden.
“No, keep it,” said Josiah. “I weren’t asking for a replacement.”
“I wish there was something I could do to thank you,” said George, his mouth full of pemmican. “You saved Will’s life, as well as mine. Would you take my compass?”
Josiah chuckled. “Keep yer things, George. I ain’t expecting any thanks.”
“Please,” said George, thrusting the brass compass toward Josiah, “I want you to have it.”
“I don’t need such trinkets to tell me which way I need to go,” said Josiah. “Yer needing that– not me. Put it away, George. There’s things we need to talk over afore Will wakes up.”
Finishing his pemmican, George sat in the snow, huddled in his buffalo robe.
“Yer still a youngster,” said Josiah, holding up a hand to quiet George’s objection. “Without Will to keep you fed, you’ll be in a bad way. So will he. It’ll take time fer his leg to mend, and he won’t be able to do any hunting or keep you out of trouble if Blackfoot shows up.”
George didn’t say anything, his face deep in thought.
“When I’m able, I’ll build you a proper shelter where the trees can protect you from the wind and hide you from Indians. I don’t have much food to spare, but I’ll give you what I can until you’re able to catch something more.”
“I can hunt,” said George. “I’m not a great shot, but I can manage on my own.”
A strong gust of icy wind whipped past them, and George’s bravado faded. Behind those grownup eyes, Josiah saw a very frightened boy.
“I’ll be thankful for some shelter,” said George, his face relaxing a little at the thought. “Except for that tiny snow cave, we’ve been living under our buffalo robes all winter, and sleeping by an open fire.”
“I’ve passed many nights the same way,” smiled Josiah. “Ain’t no shame in that. The Indians stay the warmest, though, in their hide lodges. If you had yerself a squaw–” Josiah caught himself falling into an old habit, and quickly changed the subject. “I’ll look at Will’s leg afore I leave. You lost yer snowshoes in the avalanche, didn’t you? What about Will’s? He still have his? It’ll be a long walk, trying to get back to my kin without snowshoes.”
“You can use Will’s,” nodded George. “You’ll come back, though?” As if realizing how desperate he must’ve sounded, George straightened his shoulders. “Snowshoes are hard to come by.”
Emma had not been able to find much sleep the night before, with waking and praying for Josiah’s safety every time her eyes popped open. This morning had been even harder, and there were several times Emma had talked herself into going to search for Josiah. If only she hadn’t heard yesterday’s avalanche, her nerves would be so much quieter.
By midday, Emma’s silent prayers consumed every waking minute. Why hadn’t he returned? Josiah had only said he would take a look around and maybe hunt more game before they moved on to the cabin. Maybe, instead of food, he had met up with trouble. Maybe he lay beneath tons of ice and snow. Emma scolded herself for dwelling on fear, and prayed for more faith.
The sound of crunching snow came as a welcome interruption to Emma’s prayers. Grabbing her shotgun, she peered from the shelter with Mary at her side.
A buckskinned man with a weary face grinned at Emma. “Hi, Em. Hope I didn’t worry you too much.”
Dropping her rifle, Emma crawled out on hands and knees. Straightening, she did her best to hurry through the deep snow, and into those strong welcoming arms.
“You’re safe, thank God you’re safe,” she breathed, as Josiah hugged her tightly. “I prayed you hadn’t been caught in that avalanche, and my prayers are answered!”
“You heard that?” Josiah pulled Emma back and she saw the concern in his eyes. “I’d hoped you hadn’t. It must’ve given you a hard night.”
Weariness had etched itself deep into Josiah’s face, and it concerned Emma. “It looks as though you’ve had an even harder time. What happened, Josiah? Is that fresh blood on your trousers? Did you go hunting?”
By now, Mary had joined them, and she hugged Josiah’s leg until he bent down to pick her up.
“Let me eat first, Emma, and then I tell you everything. You been keeping watch fer me, Mary?”
Eager to please Josiah, Mary nodded happily.
“Has yer Ma had her meals like she should?”
“She did not eat any lunch,” said Mary.
Emma sighed. She felt Josiah’s disapproving eyes probe her for an explanation. “I intended to eat later today. Now Josiah,” Emma’s voice rose in defense as he groaned loudly, “I wasn’t hungry.”
“Yer eating as soon as we get inside, Emma.” Giving Mary a pat on the head, he set the child down. “Good girl,” he smiled at Mary.
Little Mary glowed at Josiah’s praise. “Ma did not eat much supper, either,” she quickly added.
“Mary, I ate what I usually do for an evening meal,” said Emma, “and I’d appreciate you not stretching the truth just to please your father. If you must give him a report, make sure it’s fair and truthful.”
Josiah tugged at Mary’s braid. “Listen to yer ma. I don’t want to be yelling at her, if she’s been behaving.”
“Oh, I’m outnumbered!” laughed Emma, swatting Josiah’s arm before she ducked inside. It felt good to have him back.
With a tired moan, Josiah let himself down on the buffalo robe. He pulled at his bearskin coat, and then at the straps on his feet.
“Where are your snowshoes, Josiah?” Emma hadn’t noticed them before now, but they weren’t Josiah’s.
“Give me pemmican first, and then I’ll talk,” said Josiah. He accepted food from Emma, but didn’t pray over his meal until he saw that Emma had taken some food for herself. “I’m meaning it, Emma, I want you to eat.”
“I know, I know,” she sighed. She stared at her pemmican, trying to work up an appetite. After saying grace, she took a small nibble, and then waited for Josiah to keep his promise to talk.
“We ain’t alone on the mountain,” said Josiah, speaking with a mouthful of food. If those words hadn’t captured Emma’s full attention, she would’ve lost what little she had in her stomach at the sight of pemmican rolling around in Josiah’s mouth.
“We aren’t alone? Who is it, Josiah? Blackfoot?”
“No, these two ain’t Indians.” Josiah looked at her hesitantly. “They’re trappers.”
“White trappers? Here?” Emma didn’t know what to think of this news, except to note the odd pained look on Josiah’s face. Emma didn’t understand. Wouldn’t he be happy for the company of other mountain men? For men like himself?
“One of them’s hurt, and I had to take his leg afore gangrene finished him off.”
“‘Take his leg’?” asked Emma. Then she realized what he had meant. “Will he live?”
“How’d you know that’s his name?” Josiah asked in surprise.
“I don’t understand,” said Emma.
“That’s his name,” said Josiah.
“What is?” asked Emma.
“I think it’s Shaw, but I ain’t sure I’m remembering it rightly.”
Emma sighed patiently. She was getting nowhere. “What about his leg? Is the man going to die?”
“I reckon he’ll live.”
Then Josiah told them of last night’s operation, and Emma felt her stomach turn. She learned Will had been the injured trapper’s name, and that a second man named George had held Will down while Josiah worked on the leg. When Josiah began to relate the cauterization, Emma stopped him flat.
“Please, Josiah, my stomach is already upset.”
Josiah scowled at her disbelievingly. “You’ve done as much fer my back, when I need it, and you didn’t turn squeamish, then.”
“My stomach wasn’t upset then,” said Emma, taking another nibble of food. “It must’ve been terrible for you, Josiah. It explains why you’re so exhausted.”
He shrugged lightly. “Will had a harder time of it than me. I even felt sorry fer George, when all the screaming started.” Josiah looked at her thoughtfully. “They’ll need my help, if they’re going to survive.”
“It’ll be dangerous for everyone if the Blackfoot find out,” said Emma.
“I reckon so.”
He sighed, rubbed the back of his neck with a broad hand, and then turned his frowning face to the fire. He looked as though his thoughts disturbed him.
“Are you afraid the Blackfoot are nearby?” asked Emma.
“No, there ain’t any buffaler around.”
Something else bothered Josiah, and Emma quickly ran out of guesses. She had a feeling the Blackfoot, though a potentially dangerous situation, didn’t overly worry him. Not right now, as his dark eyes raised to stare at her so quietly. His rough night, though exhausting and difficult, didn’t appear to be foremost in his thoughts, either.
“What’s wrong, Josiah? Did I do something to make you unhappy?”
Josiah smiled sadly, and shook his head. “No, I reckon I’m happy enough. Did you stay inside the lodge when I was gone?”
“We only went out for necessities,” said Emma. “Won’t you talk to me, Josiah?”
He gave her a small grin. “What do you think I’m doing?” The twinkle in his eye told her he understood what she had meant. “Maybe I’ll talk about it later– when you’ve finished yer meal.”
Emma smiled. “Promise?”
The small grin playing around Josiah’s mouth faded a little, and he sighed heavily. “We’ll see,” he said, shaking off his troubles with a new grin. “Afore I take you women on to the cabin, how’s about another dip in the hot springs?”
“I go first!” said Mary, her face lighting up with smiles and excitement. “Ma and I go first!”
Josiah laughed, but to Emma, his laughter sounded strained.
With Josiah seated high on the boulder overlooking the hot springs, Emma and Mary splashed about in the warm, silty water. After the girl had had enough play, she shouted up at the rock,
“Look away, Pa! I am coming out!”
Emma smiled as she imagined Josiah’s scowl when he turned his back to the springs.
After drying off, Mary took her place on the rock, and Josiah entered the water.
“How about talking, now?” Emma asked him.
“Now?” he asked. “I’m trying to relax.”
“You’ll feel more relaxed, after you’ve told me what’s on your mind.”
A playful swat of water did little to stop Emma.
Groaning, Josiah gazed at Emma with a wistful grin. “Did you finish that pemmican?”
“I did.” She felt some satisfaction telling him that, for now he had to talk.
Instead, Josiah splashed water over his shoulders, and then closed his eyes as the water lapped at his chest.
“Josiah, you promised!”
One eye opened, and it looked at her reproachfully. “I did not.”
Disappointed, Emma looked at him pleadingly. “Please, don’t tease me, Josiah. I’m serious.”
Moving toward her in the water, Josiah pulled Emma to his side with a strong arm. He pressed her head against his shoulder, and each time she opened her mouth to talk, he covered it with a kiss. Emma had to admit, if he didn’t want to talk, this was a good way to keep her quiet.
After supper that night, when Mary quieted down long enough to be tucked into bed, Emma stoked the fire to make sure the flames wouldn’t die before morning. She had hoped Josiah would pull off his hunting shirt, so she could tease his worries from him, but he didn’t. He lay down fully clothed, and before Emma could stop him, his loud snores filled the shelter. The exhaustion of the night before had caught up to him, and Emma decided to let him rest.
As she lay beside Josiah while he slept, Emma contemplated his pained expression when he had told her there were trappers on the mountain.
“Ma?” a small voice whispered from across the fire. “I can not sleep.”
Quietly getting up, Emma made sure Josiah kept warm with a heavy blanket about his shoulders. Then she crossed to the other side of the small shelter to lay down beside Mary.
“I can’t sleep, either,” Emma whispered to Mary. The girl snuggled happily beside her as Josiah continued to snore.
Mary wrinkled her nose. “He is very loud.”
“He is very tired,” smiled Emma, giving Mary a small hug. “Your pa has had a harder time than he likes to admit, and deserves his rest.”
“Ma?” Mary looked up at Emma with serious dark eyes. “Am I white or red?”
The question caught Emma off guard. “You’re both, Mary. You’re half Blackfoot and half white, which means you’re twice as blessed as someone who’s just one color.”
“Is Pa the same as me?”
“Yes, he is,” said Emma.
Mary looked thoughtful. “Where does Pa live?”
“What do you mean?” asked Emma.
“Pa does not live with the Blackfoot, and he does not live with the white man.”
“He has white friends, and I expect he lives mostly with them,” said Emma.
The answer must’ve satisfied Mary, for she drifted off to sleep.
It was then that Emma realized she didn’t hear Josiah snoring. She raised her head, and found him staring at her from over the flames.
He smiled as their gaze met.
Leaving Mary, Emma tucked the child in without awakening her.
Josiah moved over as Emma lay down beside him.
“I heard what you was saying to Mary,” he whispered.
“I’m sorry we woke you,” sighed Emma. “You needed the sleep.”
The same pained thoughtful expression that had perplexed Emma, again crossed Josiah’s features and Emma felt helpless to guess its cause. She could only assume it had something to do with the two trappers.
“Emma, when you look at me, what do you see?”
The question mystified her. “I see my husband.”
Josiah frowned. “I mean, what do you see– an Indian, or a white man?”
Emma considered her answer carefully. “I see both.”
Looking frustrated, Josiah shook his head. “People see one thing, and not both when they look at me. I’m a white man to the Blackfoot, and a Blackfoot to the white man. I’m never just me.”
“What’s got you thinking like this?” asked Emma. “Is it because of the trappers?”
“The trappers are what set me off, but Mary’s the one who got me to thinking. She was asking what color husband she’d be marrying, and where she’d be living. I couldn’t answer her one way or the other. I just told her to be sure she married a Christian.”
“It’s a good answer, Josiah.”
“But it isn’t any answer at all,” sighed Josiah. “I got two sides tugging at me, and I always wind up not belonging to either one when the dust settles. Emma, even my trapper friends treat me different, like I’m not really one of them. The only time I ever feel I belong somewhere, is when I’m alone in these here mountains.”
“You’re no longer alone,” said Emma, brushing back his thick mane. “Mary and I are with you, and we’re a family now. We belong together.”
“That’s not what those two trappers are going to say. They’re going to say I stole you, and even though yer with child, they still might say I should return you to your people. I’m telling you right now, I’m never doing that. Yer mine, and I’m keeping you.”
“Calm yourself, Josiah. No one’s making you do anything. They’re only trappers.”
“Yer mine,” he said again, his expression softening as he gazed at her intently.
“And you’re mine, so don’t you forget it,” she whispered.
“I ain’t fergetting.”
Emma sighed happily, in spite of learning of Josiah’s fears. “I’m so glad you’re confiding in me, Josiah. It makes me feel as though you need me.”
“I do need you, Emma. That’s the trouble. I’m never letting them take you from me. Ever.”
“Hush,” said Emma, touching her finger to his lips, “no one’s going anywhere.”
“If I thought you’d be better off with yer own people…” Josiah looked conflicted. “Is it selfish of me to keep you, Emma? Would it be better if you went back to yer own people?”
The words had greatly pained Josiah, for Emma saw him tremble. As his face leaned above hers, a large tear squeezed from the corner of his eye. It slipped down his chiseled features before splashing onto her forehead. She touched his cheek, and he moved his lips to the palm of her hand.
“I’m already with my people,” she said softly.
Josiah’s mouth lightly touched hers, as if to ask for tenderness. Answering his need, Emma kissed him with all the comfort she could summon.
Whatever worlds Josiah felt caught between, Emma knew her place was with her husband. Their lives were intertwined as completely as two eddies of water, swirling together until they became one. Emma stroked Josiah’s head, and she smiled when he moaned in utter contentment.
As she felt him relax into sleep, her own troubling thoughts quietly surfaced. Emma had assumed their first experience with the white world would come when Josiah returned to his friends in the spring. It hadn’t occurred to her that these two mountain men would be their first true test.
Her fears of what polite society would say about someone like Josiah and his illegitimate daughter, had long remained unexplored in Emma’s mind. She already knew what her neighbors back in Indiana would’ve said, and such thoughts were too painful to contemplate for very long.
But if those two trappers were anything like Josiah, they wouldn’t be considered polite society by anyone. Josiah didn’t often speak of his friends, and Emma could only assume what he left out. She imagined them to be a crude and illiterate bunch, ignorant of anything except hunting and weaponry and animal hides. And willing women.
Thinking this over, Emma reasoned there was no need for great concern. She would only need a loaded shotgun to keep the two men at a comfortable distance, and that would be all. These men would not be gossiping neighbors, speaking polite things to your face but whispering cruel words behind your back.
Civilization felt distant and far removed from where Emma lay with Josiah, cozied together on the buffalo robes in their small shelter. Curling the end of a long strand of Josiah’s sun-streaked hair about her finger, Emma slowly released the tension from her body. She had no need to fear. Polite society was too far away, to reach these wild mountains.
Before falling asleep, Emma communed with God. She placed her family in His hands, and then closed her eyes in undisturbed rest.