Don’t forgot to read – These Wild Mountains : Chapter 12
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To Josiah’s delight, he awoke the next morning with his head on Emma’s bosom. He rubbed his cheek against her deerskin dress, clinging to her shamelessly like a child needing comfort from its mother. Since Emma still slept, no one could see his weakness, and Josiah could derive as much comfort as he needed in his darling’s slumbering arms.
And Josiah needed comfort. Emma’s kisses last night had helped, but what he felt the most grateful for, were those five wonderful words she had given him so reassuringly, as though she had read his heart: “I’m already with my people.” Those simple words echoed in Josiah’s mind, until they reverberated in every recess of his soul. Let others say what they might, Emma had said he was her people.
Protective of his treasure, Josiah clung to Emma all the tighter. He dug his hand under Emma’s side, making his way between buffalo hide and deerskin dress until he found the small of her back. With great care, he massaged her muscles, hoping to lessen the tightness she would probably feel upon waking up. Then he moved his hand to Emma’s front, to feel the slight swell of her belly. You couldn’t see that she was with child yet, not unless you felt for it. But there it was, right there beneath his hand, the swell of a baby growing inside Emma.
In the stillness of the lodge, Josiah returned his head to its resting place. A small sigh of contentment slid past his ear, and he didn’t have to look up to know Emma had awakened, and that a smile was on her lips. Josiah nestled his wife, and her soft whisper caressed him.
“Kiss me,” she said, her sweet voice more command than request.
Even though his heart summersaulted to obey, Josiah forced himself to respond cooly. “I will… when I feel like it.” He smothered a grin as her tender fingers reached behind his neck.
“Do you feel like it now?” she asked, a hushed laugh dancing in her voice.
Unwilling to hesitate any longer, Josiah raised his head to smother Emma in a kiss. Then he pulled his mouth away, returning to his soft pillow for a little more rest before the day started.
Beneath him, Josiah felt Emma trying to stretch the night stiffness from her limbs. She tapped his shoulder, and he grunted in response.
“The morning must be growing late, Josiah. Shouldn’t we get up?”
Grinning, Josiah cozied his cheek against Emma. “We’ll get up when I’m good and ready.”
“Oh, really?” she asked playfully. “And what if I want to get up before you’re ready?”
Josiah harrumphed. “Try it, and see how far you git.”
Something slipped beneath Josiah’s armpit, and he exploded into laughter! He grabbed the tickling hand, pinning it to the buffalo robes while Emma’s frantic laughter begged him not to retaliate.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t,” he grinned.
He saw Emma search for an excuse, her face lighting up when she finally found one. “Mary’s awake and will want breakfast!”
“Mary,” he called over his shoulder, “you know where to find the pemmican.” He grinned down at Emma. “Now where was I?”
Emma laughed uncontrollably, and Josiah enjoyed his advantage until she suddenly grew still. “I have to get up,” said Emma, her voice filled with urgency. “Josiah, get off me.”
Not needing an explanation, Josiah rolled off Emma to let her crawl outside with her shotgun. When she returned to the lodge, she looked very much relieved.
“I nearly made you laugh too hard,” grinned Josiah, as Emma sat beside the fire to get breakfast. She ignored his observation with a faint blush, and then quietly said a prayer over their meal. Biting into his food, Josiah watched to see if Emma would eat. She did, although very slowly.
Tossing a dry branch into the fire, Josiah nodded to Emma. “After you finish eating that pemmican, we’re packing up and heading fer the cabin.”
Clouds blanketed the morning sky, shedding white flakes to the already deep layer of snow covering the ground. Digging his travois out from under the snow, Josiah loaded their belongings into its leather netting and then started off with his family back toward his pa’s cabin.
Each step they took also brought them a little closer to where Josiah had left the two mountaineers in their snow cave. Apprehensively, Josiah glanced at Emma. She didn’t look concerned, but Josiah knew she had no idea how close they were to the trappers. He guessed they weren’t too far from the men now, and decided to take a slightly longer route back to the cabin to avoid a chance meeting with George.
After Josiah had gotten some distance between themselves and the snow cave, he told the girls to stop so they could rest and catch their breath. As usual, Emma needed more rest than Mary.
Leaning against a boulder, Josiah’s thoughts bothered him. He knew George hoped he would come sometime today, to check on Will. Josiah mulled it over, and then came to a decision.
“Emma,” he said, taking up his rifle into the crook of his arm, “I want you and Mary to wait fer me while I go see how Will’s faring. I’ll be back in a short while.”
Josiah recognized a glimmer of curiosity in Emma’s face, as she realized how close they must be to the trappers’ camp. She said nothing about coming with him, and neither did he. Mary, however, couldn’t contain her curiosity so easily.
“Pa,” she asked, tugging at his coat to get his attention, “take me with you!”
Josiah looked down at his daughter. “Why should I?”
“I have never seen a white man before,” she said with an excited grin. “Please, Pa?”
Josiah frowned. “What are you meaning? You see me every day, and I’m white.”
Mary blinked at him with puzzled dark eyes.
“Never mind,” Josiah said brusquely, “stay here with Emma.”
“Do as I say!” Josiah bit off the words with a sharpness he quickly regretted. “Mary,” he sighed, squatting down to Mary’s level, “I’m sorry I yelled. You best stay here with Emma, and look after things, all right?”
“Didn’t you just hear what I said, Little Cub? Yer staying put with yer ma, and that’s final.”
Unused to seeing disobedience from Mary, Josiah watched as her brow knit together in defiance and her chin came up. “I will not stay. After you go, I will follow.”
“Mary!” Emma said in surprise. “Apologize this very minute!”
Without taking his eyes off Mary, Josiah called to Emma over his shoulder. “Stay quiet, Emma. This is between me and Mary. Cub, I’ll give you a chance to take those words back, but if you don’t, I reckon I’ll hafta punish you.”
Mary swallowed hard, but stubbornly remained silent.
“So be it,” said Josiah, sitting down on the ground to take Mary over his knee. He spanked Mary’s bottom as hard as he dared without damaging her, and on his fourth swat, Mary burst into tears. Josiah didn’t stop, however, until he had reached the end of the punishment. Mary’s spanking over, Josiah stood the crying child on her feet, his face level with hers as he sat in the snow.
Sniffing, Mary dried her tears with one of her blankets.
“I didn’t like punishing you, Mary, but I’ll do it again if you ever disobey me or yer ma. Do we understand each other?”
Mary nodded, more tears slipping down her cheeks. “I am sorry,” she said in a very small voice. She looked at him repentantly, and Josiah took her into his arms for a loving hug. She felt small but not fragile, and the thought went through his mind that this child, this little girl, was his very own.
“If I didn’t love you,” he told Mary, “I’d never have punished you. Do you understand, Cub?”
Mary nodded, and to his pleasant surprise, gave him a peck on the cheek. “Sorry, Pa.”
“Yer forgiven, daughter.” He pulled Mary away, and smiled when he noticed the pleased grin on her face. He had called her daughter.
Standing, Josiah checked his rifle. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the quiet approval in Emma’s face. She hadn’t thought his punishment had been too rough, and it made the last flicker of doubt fade from Josiah’s heart. He had done the right thing. Feeling better, he easily swung the flintlock over his shoulder. “You women stay put. I’ll be back afore lunch.” He waited until Emma came forward with his goodbye kiss, and then set off in the direction of the trappers’ snow cave.
The cave opening not yet within eyesight, Josiah heard crunching snow and the heavy breathing of someone moving through the deep drifts at a fast pace. Before long, George appeared with his rifle, his knuckles white from clutching the weapon so tightly.
The young man stooped to catch his breath before speaking. “I thought… I thought you might not come,” he said between gasps of air. He straightened, took a steadying breath to contain his obvious relief, and then fell into step beside Josiah.
Josiah couldn’t help but grin. “How’s Will?” he asked.
“Not good,” said George. “He refuses to eat or drink, and won’t even speak to me. Hasn’t said a word since… since that night. Do you have any food, Josiah? I saved some of the food you gave us for Will, for when he changes his mind and wants to eat, but I’ve already finished mine.”
Josiah dug into the pouch at his belt for more pemmican. He silently rebuked himself for not thinking to bring enough to last them for a month or two. Because he hadn’t, it would mean another trip, and Josiah wasn’t looking for any excuses to come back.
While George ate, Josiah unfastened his snowshoes and crawled inside the snow cave. Wrapped in a thick buffalo hide, he found Will, awake and deathly pale. The trapper stared at Josiah as though he were an intruder, but Josiah ignored the insult. He touched Will’s forehead and frowned.
“Yer running a fever, Will. That ain’t good.”
Will remained silent.
“George tells me you ain’t eating or drinking. If you don’t git something in yer belly, you won’t have the strength to git better.” Josiah harrumphed. He sounded like he did when talking to Emma. He dug into his pouch and pulled out the last bite of pemmican. “Eat this,” said Josiah, shoving the morsel of food into Will’s mouth.
Will stared at him, and Josiah recognized the hatred in his eyes. It hadn’t been there the first time he had met Will, but it was there now. It had been there ever since that night. That night he lost his leg.
“Swallow that afore I make you,” said Josiah, giving full weight to each word as he spoke.
Instead of obeying, Will spat the food onto the snow.
If Will had been a child, and not a full grown man nearly twenty seasons older than himself, Josiah would’ve spanked Will. But this man was no child, and that loaded shotgun he weakly clutched to his chest was no plaything.
“You fixing to die?” asked Josiah. “If you won’t eat or drink, that’s what’ll happen.”
Will smiled ever so faintly.
“So that’s it, yer wanting to die,” said Josiah. “Very well, I can’t stop you– you having that weapon so handy. But what about yer friend? What about George? What’ll happen to him if you ain’t here to help him?”
Will said nothing, his face betraying little more than hopelessness and flashes of hatred.
“I ain’t God, and I ain’t George,” said Josiah, “so I can’t take personal offense at you murdering yerself or running out on yer friend.” Leaning forward, Josiah glared at Will. “But what does offend me, is that there pemmican you spat up. I took it out of the mouths of my kinfolk, just so you could eat.” Josiah tightened his jaw. “Yer going to eat it, if it’s the last thing that ever passes yer lips.”
Will said nothing. He just stared at Josiah, daring him to go for his weapon and finish him off.
Feigning to back down, Josiah surprised Will by cracking him over the head with the butt of Josiah’s already battered flintlock. The shotgun in Will’s hands went off, discharging into the ceiling. Snow fell through the opening, and Josiah saw daylight.
“What happened?” asked George, dropping down to the entrance to peer inside.
Ignoring George, Josiah pulled the shotgun from its unconscious owner. “Will, wake up. You and I have unfinished business.” Josiah slapped Will until the man’s eyes opened.
Will frantically searched for his shotgun, only to find Josiah had placed it well out of his reach.
Shoving the pemmican into Will’s mouth, Josiah ordered him to eat. Will tried to spit, but Josiah clamped his jaw shut with both hands. A wrestling match ensued, and for a weakened man, Will put up a tough fight.
The pemmican at last forced down his throat, Will licked his bloody lip, for he had bitten himself in his wild struggle.
Breathless but victorious, Josiah sat on his heels feeling quite pleased with himself. In spite of his small win, however, Josiah knew he hadn’t broken Will’s desire to die. Josiah had had enough fighting. All he wanted now was to go back to Emma and Mary. After finding his hastily set aside flintlock, Josiah gathered Will’s shotgun, and then fit himself through the entrance.
When Josiah got to his feet, he found George gaping at him in horror.
In his usual headlong manner, Josiah met George’s indignant gaze without hesitation.
The young man took a quick awkward step back.
“If you’ve got something to say, say it,” said Josiah.
George swallowed hard. “You had no right to treat him that way. You’re overstepping yourself, and forgetting that you’re just a –“
“A what?” Josiah asked evenly.
George shrank in his capote.
“Well? I’m waiting fer you to finish what you were saying.”
Silence filled the air as George slowly shook his head. He wouldn’t finish his statement, and Josiah knew it. Not now, and hopefully, not ever again.
“Best hang onto this,” said Josiah, thrusting Will’s shotgun at George. He wasn’t about to make any apologies. Food meant life and death to more than himself, and these newcomers needed to respect that — even if they didn’t respect him.
For several long moments, indignation replaced grief as George studied Will’s weapon with something akin to nostalgia. He ran his hand along its smooth barrel, his voice subdued and sorrowful. “Will’s been a good friend to me,” George said in a choked voice. “When others wouldn’t let me trap with them, he did, and told me I was welcome. I wouldn’t be here right now without Will. He’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had.”
Josiah grunted. He looked to the sky, wanting to get back to his family before lunchtime. The sun hadn’t yet reached midday, so he still had a little time left before Emma would start worrying.
Impatient to get moving, Josiah looked back to George. He didn’t like what he found. The young man softly cried into his sleeve, while his shoulders heaved in quiet, delicate sobs. Josiah scowled. George acted like a sniveling girl, instead of a man nearly full grown!
“Git control of yerself, youngster.” Josiah felt the growl in his voice, but did nothing to stop it.
Instead of objecting at being called a child, George obediently did as he was told. He swiped at his tears with the sleeve of his capote, and then pulled out a handkerchief to blow his nose. “Maybe he’ll eat,” said George, struggling to sound hopeful but failing miserably. “He might, if you forced him.”
“That ain’t likely,” said Josiah. “He’s given up.”
A boyishly innocent face looked at Josiah, his eyes rimmed with tears. “But why? Why won’t he even try?”
Josiah rubbed his jaw in an effort to lessen the tension he felt building in his muscles. “I ain’t rightly knowing, but if I hafta guess, I reckon he thinks life ain’t worth living without his leg. He didn’t feel that way afore we cut it off, but he sure feels that way now.”
“What am I going to do?” asked George. His voice came out in a whimper, and Josiah cringed. Didn’t this man have any self-respect? Instead of berating him, however, as his own pa would’ve done, Josiah forced the disdain from his throat before answering.
“You’ll do what you have to, just like the rest of us. I’m leaving now, but I’ll return to make that shelter I promised.”
George halfheartedly nodded, as though not really believing him.
“You just keep fighting to live,” said Josiah. “Survive this, and it’ll make a man out of you yet.”
Emma stood up as she saw Josiah approach. From his grim expression, she knew his meeting with the trappers hadn’t gone well.
“That Will,” Josiah spat at the snow in disgust. “He’s doing his best to die, and doesn’t care if he takes George with him. I’ve a good mind to let him sit there and rot as he wants, but I reckon God wouldn’t like it.” Josiah slanted her a questioning look. “Would He?”
“He wouldn’t,” said Emma.
With a heavy sigh, Josiah nodded knowingly. “That’s what I thought.”
Getting in front of the travois, Josiah dragged the make-shift sled behind him. He kept a quick and unrelenting pace, until Emma called out for him to slow down. Towing Mary at her side, Emma hurriedly waddled in her snowshoes until she caught up to Josiah.
He looked at her apologetically. “Reckon I have a lot on my mind.”
Lunchtime came, and they stopped long enough to eat before resuming their trip. Snow came down heavily as the afternoon grew long, partially obscuring the way before them. When Emma relayed her concerned about getting lost to Josiah, he only grinned and told her to keep pace at his side. His quiet confidence bolstered her, and she didn’t mention getting lost again.
Before long, a familiar sight towered above Emma. Ole’ Hollowtop’s flattened peak greeted her tired eyes, and she knew the cabin must be nearby. A flutter of joy traveled through Emma. They were almost home!
Behind the trees, out of plain view, nestled their tiny cabin. Emma thought she had never seen such a beautiful sight in all her life.
Instead of rushing inside, Josiah cautiously checked the lodge for intruders. Announcing all was clear, he climbed onto the roof to knock off the snow that had accumulated while they were gone.
Emma had known she’d missed the cabin, but she didn’t know how much until she stepped inside and saw the cold fireplace, waiting for flames to bring it to life. She felt her eyes moisten with joy.
When Josiah came inside, Emma heard him chuckle. “You ain’t going to start crying, are you, Emma?” He looked at her uncertainly, shaking his head with a grin as she dried the tear on her cheek.
“I’m just so happy to be home,” smiled Emma. Her gaze fell on the sewing shelf beneath the shuttered windows, and another tear rolled down her face. Soon, she could resume her sewing.
With a low chuckle, Josiah came from behind Emma and wrapped his arms about her waist. She tilted her head against his shoulder as they watched Mary make her bed beside the fireplace. The girl smiled broadly as she took down her Indian doll from off the table, reuniting her two “babies” with childlike glee.
Emma heard Josiah smile. “I wish I didn’t have to go so soon,” he breathed quietly. He propped his chin on Emma’s head, and she felt a gust of wind as he exhaled. “I promised George to make them that shelter, and I’m thinking I shouldn’t wait too long to get it done.”
Wistfully touching the large hand at her waist, Emma caressed his fingers. “When will you be back?”
“Tomorrow, most likely, so if I ain’t home by sundown tonight, don’t wait up fer me.” He planted a kiss on her hair. “Don’t fret about me, Emma. I can take care of myself.”
“Stay warm, Josiah.” She closed her eyes, relishing his hold on her for a little longer. “I’ll miss you, tonight.”
“Have Mary sleep beside you,” Josiah said with a grin in his voice. “You won’t git too lonely.” With a reluctant sigh, he released Emma and she turned to look into his face. “Don’t leave the cabin unless you have to, and keep yer shotgun handy.”
For the first time in awhile, Emma heard herself laugh as though she didn’t have a care in the world. “There’s no need to tell me what I already know!”
“I’m just reminding you,” he grinned.
After checking Emma’s shotgun and Mary’s pistol, Josiah gathered his axe, two buffalo hides, and a bladder of pemmican for George and Will. He strapped the snowshoes back on, received his goodbye kiss, and then headed out the door.
Emma watched his figure disappear beyond the line of trees surrounding their cabin, and noted the already darkening sky. With such a late start, she knew he wouldn’t be returning tonight.
Before darkness fell, Josiah made camp in the new shelter he had built for the trappers. Ironically, he wasn’t far from the cabin, for Josiah didn’t want to make long trips back and forth just to check on the two men. Even though he could’ve returned to sleep the night through with Emma, he instead chose to remain at the new campsite. Four walls and a roof had a way of making him feel confined, and restless to find his freedom.
But not Emma.
Josiah sighed heavily. Emma loved that lodge, built thick and strong with logs that kept a man in one place. During the trapping season, when he wasn’t holed up somewhere for the winter, his life took him all across the Rockies, hunting and trapping wherever he could to make a living. This was his life, and he didn’t know of any other.
Frowning, Josiah tossed another branch into the flames before settling back in his robe. Having looked at the dark side of things long enough, he felt ready for a happier perspective. Emma would never leave his side simply because he slept beneath an open sky and went from place to place until winter made travel difficult. Given enough time, she would learn to love these mountains as he did. She had no choice, just as he had no choice. He must continue living the way he had been raised, and do what he had been taught since childhood. His pa was a trapper, and so was he.
Even with this comforting thought, it saddened Josiah to recall Emma’s tears of joy upon returning to their small shambles of a cabin.
The biting wind nipped at Josiah’s nose, and he pulled the robe over his face for protection. He had to stop thinking of such things. He had enough to pray about, without bothering himself too much over the future. Josiah thought of the two trappers, and let those concerns pull him back to the present.
“God, help me,” he prayed out loud.
Feeling a great deal of responsibility, Josiah tried to find comfort from the warmth gathering in his buffalo robe. His best earthly source for comfort, however, cuddled with Mary back at the cabin.
Josiah smiled grimly. He missed Emma.
The next morning, Josiah awoke to a sky filled with snow. He ate his breakfast, then started off for the snow cave to bring Will and George to their new camp.
Even before he saw the cave, Josiah had an uneasy feeling. Something didn’t feel right. He knew it in his gut. Instinctively checking his priming, Josiah waited a moment before proceeding. Soon, he expected to hear George rushing forward to greet him. Cautiously going forward, the entrance came into view. Josiah hesitated. He heard nothing, but the sound of wind as it whipped past his fox cap.
“George, that you?” a voice shouted from inside the cave.
“No, it’s me,” said Josiah, dropping to his knee to look inside.
Bundled in his buffalo robe, Will stared at Josiah in disappointment. “Thought you were George,” he said almost resentfully.
“Where is he?” asked Josiah.
“He said he was going hunting,” said Will. “I told him not to, for he doesn’t know much about the wilderness and keeping himself alive.” Will looked at Josiah expectantly, but said nothing more.
“You’re wanting me to go after him?” asked Josiah. If that’s what Will wanted, he’d have to come right out and ask.
“Do what suits you, Indian. I’m obliged for your help, but I’m not asking for any more favors. One was enough.”
Josiah harrumphed. He looked over his shoulder at the snowy heavens. “When’d he leave?”
“Early this morning.”
“His tracks will be covered over by now,” said Josiah, untying the snowshoes at his feet. “If he ain’t back by lunchtime, I’ll go looking fer him.”
Will said nothing. He said nothing as Josiah crawled inside, set down his axe and robes, and he said nothing when Josiah talked of food.
“I brung you some pemmican,” said Josiah, opening a bladder and showing Will its contents. “If you ain’t wanting any, give yers to George.”
Will made no response, but closed his eyes for sleep. Josiah noted the empty cup at Will’s side, and realized George had been wrong– Will had been drinking water, though from the gaunt look of the trapper, he wasn’t eating.
“How’s yer fever?” asked Josiah, not caring if he disturbed Will’s rest.
Will said nothing, so Josiah touched his hand to the man’s forehead. “Yer still burning up.”
“I don’t care,” said Will, not bothering to open his eyes.
Even though the terse comment angered Josiah, Josiah kept silent. Withdrawing himself to the far side of the tiny cave, Josiah wrapped his robe around his shoulders to wait for George. If that young man didn’t show up mighty soon, Josiah wouldn’t wait for lunchtime to go looking for him.
A short while later, George hadn’t shown up. Josiah crawled outside, and turned his face into the wind. That feeling of apprehension hadn’t left him, and every nerve in his body told him George was in trouble.
“You going to look for him?” asked a voice from inside the cave.
“I am,” said Josiah.
“He went hunting because of me,” said Will.
Josiah stooped to look into the snow cave and saw the guilt on Will’s face. “George said he thought maybe the reason I didn’t eat, was because I was saving the food for him. He said he’d go hunting, so there’d be enough for both of us.”
Josiah groaned. He should’ve thought to tell George he was bringing more food today.
“Can you track him?” asked Will. “Snow’s coming down heavy.”
“I’ll manage,” said Josiah. “Meanwhile, you can do George a favor and start eating.”
Will’s features hardened, and Josiah backed off. If the man wanted to slowly kill himself, Josiah couldn’t stop him.
Without a word, Josiah climbed to a high precipice where he could get a good vantage of his surroundings. He trained his sharp eyes to the distance, smiling when he found a thin column of smoke near the bottom of the mountain. Hopefully, that smoke meant George. If it didn’t… Josiah would approach cautiously, before revealing his presence to whoever had started the fire.
Stealth came easily to Josiah, having grown up among Indians and seasoned mountain men. He effortlessly found the source of the smoke, and without a sound, surprised the freezing young man huddled close to the flames.
“Josiah, am I glad to see you!” George jumped to his feet and would have hugged Josiah, had Josiah not pinned George back with a withering stare.
“Where’s yer buffalo hide?” asked Josiah, for George shivered noticeably from exposure to the cold.
“I didn’t think I needed it,” said George. “I only intended to be gone for a short while.”
Josiah spoke with authority. “Never leave without a robe. It ain’t safe.”
George sighed glumly, but made no argument.
“Will said you left early this morning to go hunting,” said Josiah. “He didn’t exactly say it, but I think you worried him when you didn’t show up.”
“I would’ve come back sooner,” George said apologetically, “but I got lost when the snow covered over my tracks.”
A heavy feeling settled in the pit of Josiah’s stomach. “You got lost? You ain’t but down the mountain from yer own camp, and you got lost?”
George’s face turned bright crimson. “I thought I’d gone further.”
Shaking his head at the young man’s inexperience, Josiah kicked snow into the fire and the flames extinguished with a hiss. “At least you remembered to take yer rifle,” said Josiah. “When we git back, I’m moving you and Will to the new shelter.”
“It’s ready?” George’s eyes brightened.
“Keep close, so you don’t git lost,” Josiah said dryly, as they started back up the mountain.
When George answered with humiliated silence, Josiah winced. He wished he hadn’t rubbed it in.
Upon their return to the snow cave, Josiah noticed Will’s relief when he saw George was all right.
“I knew you’d get yourself into trouble,” said Will, as his young friend opened the bladder of pemmican to eat. “Serves me right, for bringing a boy to do a man’s work.”
Though George looked hurt, he didn’t retaliate. His shoulders slumped, and his mouth worked slower as he chewed his pemmican. “I’ll do better, Will.”
Will snorted, and Josiah recognized the helpless way Will thrust about his one leg, trying to get comfortable in his robe. “You should’ve let me bleed to death, Indian. I’m worse than useless like this. Not good for anything, but being a burden to those who can’t even look after themselves– let alone me.”
“My name’s Josiah Brown.”
Will looked at Josiah with wary consideration. “So George told me. An Indian with a white man’s name. Mighty peculiar, if you ask me.”
Josiah grunted. “No one asked you.”
“I guess they didn’t.” Grinning, Will leaned his back against the wall. “Seems to me that name sounds familiar,” said Will. “I wasn’t in these parts but a few days, when I heard that name come up during a talk I had with some wild looking men. Called themselves free trappers. Would they be friends of yours?”
“Depends.” Josiah rested his rifle in his lap. “Some of them I’d call friends.”
“And some you’d call enemies?” With a snorting laugh, Will slapped his knee. “Thought as much! One man in particular, didn’t have any nice words to say about you. Said you’d cheated him in poker, and took all his trading goods.” Will leaned forward to emphasize his words. “Said he’d be looking for you at rendezvous, this summer.”
With an easy smile, Josiah shrugged. “Henry never did know when to leave well enough alone.”
“What’s rendezvous?” asked George.
“It’s when trappers meet with the fur companies to sell their animal hides and buy provisions for the coming season,” said Will. When Will saw the look of surprise that must’ve been evident on Josiah’s face, Will grinned. “I’ve spent a few years trapping further South of here. Never came this far North, though.”
“Josiah?” George’s curious face peered over the edge of a buffalo robe. “Did you do it? Did you cheat at poker?”
“I’ve cheated,” said Josiah, “but not that time. Henry lost, fair and square.”
“Ha!” Will leveled a disbelieving gaze at Josiah. “I’ve never met an Indian yet, who wasn’t a thief and a liar.”
From his seat in the entrance, Josiah caged his contempt and finally managed a slow smile. “Then you haven’t met many Indians.”
At this, George chuckled. He quickly went silent, however, when Will gave him a harsh stare.
Cocking his head at George, Josiah asked him a question. “Do you believe me, George? Do you believe I didn’t cheat Henry in that poker game?”
The young man looked ready and willing to say he believed Josiah, but when he saw Will’s disapproving glare, he hunkered in his robe and remained silent.
“That’s my boy,” Will said with a wheezing laugh.
Silently, George hung his head. He looked ashamed.
Slicing off a chunk of pemmican, Josiah ate his lunch in thoughtful silence. Will wasn’t eating, and even now, as Will closed his eyes, Josiah saw the pallor of Will’s skin and knew the man was dying. Josiah thought himself a prime fool for helping these men survive, when by all rights, they should be dead by now.
But something held Josiah back. An unspoken code of the mountain men to help each other in times of trouble, might’ve been reason enough. Still, Josiah had gotten into bloody fist fights with fellow trappers over less. Liar? Thief? Josiah could feel anger boil in his veins, and forced himself to cool down. No, he wouldn’t lose his temper over an ignorant man who thought he understood Indians. God wouldn’t like it, and neither would Emma.
After lunch, Josiah built a stretcher for Will. The injured man resisted being moved to a new location, and did everything short of brandishing a weapon to stop it from happening. Of course, Will had no weapon, for George obeyed Josiah’s order and refused to give the shotgun back to Will.
With Will on the stretcher, and Josiah and George on either end, the three slowly made their way across the mountain. Deep snow hampered their progress, but by late afternoon they arrived at the new shelter.
The lodge appeared small, but still a sight larger and warmer than the snow cave they had just come from. Josiah could sense George’s gratitude, even though the young trapper had no courage to say it in front of Will.
As Josiah helped George carry Will into the shelter, George remembered the belongings they had left behind at the cave. “I should go back,” said George.
“You stay put,” said Josiah, not ready to have George get lost twice in one day. “I’ll get yer stuff. Don’t you go wandering off. When I git back, I want to find you right here. Do I have yer word on it?”
“You have my word,” said George.
Will grumbled something about Josiah stealing their traps while they weren’t looking, but said it in such a careless tone everyone there knew he didn’t mean it. Ignoring Will’s foul mood, Josiah returned to the cave to retrieve the trappers’ things.
When Josiah came back, he found George by the fire where he had left him. Will had fallen asleep, so Josiah motioned George outside to talk.
“You’ve got food to last you awhile,” said Josiah, “but tomorrow, when I come back, we’ll do some hunting and I’ll show you how to git fresh meat.”
In appreciation, George offered his hand to Josiah.
Josiah stared at the hand a moment, taken aback by the gesture of friendship. When he finally accepted, the young man heartily shook Josiah’s hand.
“Thank you for everything,” George said in a quiet voice, for he obviously didn’t want to awaken Will. “You’ve been a real Godsend, and I appreciate all you’ve done.”
Josiah nodded, reaching to check the flintlock rifle hanging from the strap at his shoulder. “God’s a good One to have on yer side, here in these mountains. I’ve learnt that the hard way.”
“You have?” George looked surprised. “I hadn’t expected someone like you–” George caught himself, stared at the ground uneasily, shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and then waved a hand to erase the invisible words between them. “I hadn’t expected to find anyone with much religion in this wilderness.”
“My religion, as you put it, is a recent event,” said Josiah. “It’s been long overdue, but I finally made peace with my Maker.”
“Good for you,” George said awkwardly, and Josiah sensed the young man couldn’t say as much for himself.
“Keep the fire burning through the night,” said Josiah, preparing to leave before the sun plunged the Rockies into darkness. “I’ll be back, tomorrow.”
Tramping through the snow in Will’s old snowshoes, Josiah said one of the very first prayers he ever uttered for someone else’s soul. He prayed for George. And after he finished, Josiah said a prayer for his unsaved grandpap.
The shaft of chimney smoke rising above the treetops brought a smile to Josiah’s lips. After spending a day with Will and George, the thought of seeing Emma and Mary again did his soul good. The heavy door opened before he had a chance to announce his return, and Emma filled his arms before he had a chance to untie his snowshoes or shrug off his bearskin coat.
“Miss me?” he grinned, as Emma hugged him tightly. She only looked up at him and smiled, the tender expression on her face speaking more loudly than any words ever could. Josiah breathed in her scent and brought her head to rest against his chest. “Never stop looking at me that way, Emma. Never.”
“Pa,” said Mary, tugging at his coat with a bright smile, “can I go with you tomorrow?”
With an amused chuckle, Josiah peered down at his little girl. “What makes you think I’m going back?”
“You are, ain’t you?” asked Mary.
A muffled sigh rose from Emma. “Please, Mary, don’t say ‘ain’t.'”
Josiah hesitated, taking into account what he knew of the two trappers. He didn’t think any trouble would arise from their seeing Mary, but still Josiah resisted any intrusions. His family was the most prized possession he had, and Josiah didn’t want the outside world tampering with them until he had no choice. “No,” he finally said, “I think it’s best you stay here with yer ma.”
“But, why, Pa?”
“Because I said so.”
A determined look crossed Mary’s face, but didn’t stay there for very long. Mary nodded glumly, obviously not liking his verdict, but willing to obey it anyway.
“How is Will?” asked Emma, as Josiah released his wife to unfasten his snowshoes.
“Not too good. With any luck, he won’t last much longer.” Josiah heard Emma’s shocked gasp. “Reckon I shouldn’t say such things,” he sighed, “but it sure is hard not to. Will’s venting his frustrations on anyone who’ll stand still, and it’s a struggle to work up enough Christian charity to pray fer him. I expect God wants me to, though?” Josiah slanted Emma a questioning look, and sighed heavily when she gave him an affirming nod. “Thought as much. I tell you, Emma, God sure expects a lot from a man. I ain’t none too sure I can do it.”
“Do not say ‘ain’t,'” said Mary.
“I’ll say whatever I want,” said Josiah, as they entered the cabin.
Mary sighed as she hung up his heavy coat. “That is not fair, Pa.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Josiah sat on the robe before the fireplace to rid himself of the chill that permeated his weary muscles. Smiling, he accepted the hot cup of water Emma handed him. “After a day like today, it does my heart good to see yer face, Emma.” He pulled her down to the robes to sit beside him, then slowly drank the warming drink until his insides felt warm.
Little Mary took a seat next to Emma, her sullen face declaring her disagreement.
Josiah gave the child a firm look. “I’m yer pa, and it’s up to me to do what’s best. You’ll git to meet them trappers soon enough.”
“If I can not say ‘ain’t,'” sighed Mary, “then you should not, either.”
“I’m grown up, and past any new learning,” said Josiah, as Emma leaned her head against his shoulder. “My ways are set, but yers ain’t. Yer ma’s trying to teach you proper manners, manners you’ll need in the white man’s world. You best heed her while yer young and have the chance fer change.”
Mary didn’t look as though she fully understood, but nodded her compliance with a small, resigned sigh.
“She’s right,” Emma said quietly, just loud enough for Josiah to hear, “you should try to improve yourself.”
“I got me a gentle woman, and I expect that’s all the improvement I can tolerate,” chuckled Josiah.
Emma lightly squeezed his arm. “I’m serious, Josiah. You’re not too old to make some changes.”
“Don’t go and try to change me too much, Emma. It won’t work.”
Emma hugged his arm, and said nothing more.
The crackle of the fire calmed Josiah, and he let himself relax. Mary played with her dolls, her quiet chatter filling the background of Josiah’s mind.
“You know, Emma,” he said thoughtfully, “Will said today that he never met an Indian who wasn’t a liar or a thief. And do you know what? I defended the Indians. What Will said ain’t true, but I ain’t exactly known fer kind words about the Indians, myself.”
“I’ve noticed that in the past,” said Emma. “I haven’t gotten the impression you like them very much, especially the Blackfoot.”
“Reckon I don’t,” said Josiah. “Funny, ain’t it? Me looking like one of them red hide Indians, and not being one on the inside. I took myself by surprise today, when I stood up fer them the way I did.”
“Why don’t you like them?”
Josiah shrugged. “Reckon I got it from my pa. He never thought much about Indians. Even though he had himself a Blackfoot wife, he treated Ma like she wasn’t worth much. She was just ‘one of them filthy Blackfoot,’ and that was all.”
“Is that how he treated you, as well?” asked Emma.
“I learned to accept it,” Josiah said in an easy manner. “It weren’t a big deal. Besides, it wasn’t like I was all Blackfoot. I am half white.”
“You shouldn’t say that,” said Emma. “You sound like your father.”
Josiah chuckled morbidly. “Old habits are hard to break.”
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t break them.”
His jaw tightened, and Josiah felt the muscles in his chest grow tense. “Let it slide, Emma. I’m tired, and I ain’t wanting to talk about it anymore.”
Emma’s silence annoyed Josiah, but he clamped his mouth shut, determined to keep his own word. He put an arm around her, possessively pressing her to his side until she relaxed. Josiah hadn’t talked this much about his past in a long while, and didn’t like thinking about what had been. The future didn’t seem all that encouraging, either, leaving Josiah with only the present to contend with. He clutched Emma to his body.
He would make this refuge last for as long as he could.
That night, while Josiah slept beside her, Emma couldn’t forget his words. If he felt that way about Indians, then he felt that way about himself. It angered Emma that his father had taught Josiah such hateful prejudice, for in teaching Josiah to hate Indians, he had also taught Josiah to hate himself.
With a low moan, Josiah stirred long enough to pull Emma closer to his chest. Lightly touching his buckskin shirt, Emma’s thoughts went to the child sleeping on the other side of the fireplace.
Something crystalized in Emma’s mind– something that had, in the past, been simply an uneasy feeling. Not only had Mary reminded Josiah of his own guilt, but Mary had also been guilty of being a Blackfoot. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, and Emma quickly comforted herself in the affection Josiah now showed his daughter.
She hadn’t even met the two trappers, and they had already revealed things about Josiah that Emma hadn’t expected. She understood her husband a little better, and with that knowledge, came hope. These discoveries were nothing to be proud of, but Emma had hope that Josiah could change. She knew he bristled at that word– change– but she also new he had already done a lot of it, since they first met.
After Emma felt confident Josiah had gotten some rest and had calmed down, she gently nudged his biceps. He moaned, nuzzled her ear, and would have dropped off to sleep if Emma hadn’t whispered,
“Josiah, we need to talk.”
His dark eyes slowly opened, and a low, tired sigh blew through his lips. “Emma, it’s in the middle of the night. Couldn’t this wait until morning?”
“Please, Josiah, this is important.”
“Emma, I’m tired.”
Before he could escape and go back to sleep, Emma kissed him, letting her fingers comb through his hair. She came up for air, and found his eyes half open with dream-like pleasure.
Josiah breathed in sharply. “You sure know how to git my attention, Emma. Reckon I’m awake now, so what is it yer wanting?”
Sitting up, Emma reached for the large Bible.
“Yer wanting to read?” Josiah asked with a tired laugh. “I’m all fer the Bible, and all, but in the middle of the night?”
“Please, don’t go back to sleep,” said Emma, turning the pages until she came to the passage she wanted. “This is from Mark, chapter twelve: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.'”
Josiah blinked to keep his eyes open. “I’m listening, Emma. Say yer piece.”
“I don’t have a ‘piece,'” said Emma, “except this: Treat others the way you would want to be treated. That’s what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.”
With a broad grin, Josiah tugged at Emma’s arm, drawing her back to his side before she could put the Bible down. “This is one neighbor I surely love,” he said playfully.
“Josiah, this is important.” She looked at him with an intent gaze. “Love your neighbor, whether they have white skin, or red.”
The playfulness vanished a little from Josiah’s face. “Is that what this is about? The Indians?”
“Josiah, would you answer me truthfully?” Emma touched his chin with a finger, and a smile slowly unfolded across his mouth. “Would you love me, if I were a Blackfoot?”
His smile disappeared. “What kind of a question is that?”
“I reckon.” He looked uncomfortable, until Emma leaned over him and touched her lips to his cheek.
“I love the Blackfoot in you, as well as the white,” she said softly. “I love you for you gentleness, even when I know it doesn’t come easily–“
“I love you for your willingness to do what’s right,” said Emma, stroking his temple, letting her fingers tangle in his thick mane. “And I love you for loving Mary.”
Josiah swallowed hard. “You make it hard fer a man to speak, Emma.”
Emma smiled. “I know you’re trying to do the right thing, Josiah. Just don’t stop trying.”
Nodding that he finally understood, Josiah put his arm around Emma as she snuggled against his shoulder. “I hear you, Emma. I hear you.”
A strong but gentle hand rubbed the small of her back, and though Josiah was the one giving the massage, Emma heard him sigh peacefully. “Do you know what, Emma? No one has ever said they loved me fer being a Blackfoot.” He tenderly pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Not until you.”
All night long, Josiah rested in Emma’s encouragement. He knew he would need it. When the sun rose high above the mountains, he would take George hunting and his family’s secluded refuge would be interrupted.
It had been inevitable, though Josiah wished he could think of a way around it. Someone had to keep an eye on Will while they went hunting. Josiah had no choice. In spite of what he had told Mary, the child would get her wish and would finally get to see her first non-mixed white man.
Josiah’s biggest concern wasn’t the trappers seeing Mary, however, but the woman who would be standing beside her.