Don’t forgot to read – The White Woman : Chapter 14
Continue Reading… 🙂
A white mantle hung over the Rocky Mountains, obscuring their steep slopes from Emma’s eyes. Closing the cabin door, she returned to the hearth where Josiah and Mary were finishing breakfast.
“It’s snowing again,” Emma said with a disappointed sigh. “I had hoped to see some blue in the heavens, this morning.”
Drawing the back of his hand over his mouth, Josiah burped his satisfaction over the meal. “Reckon you won’t be seeing any blue, today. Another storm’s coming in.”
“That won’t stop us from visiting the trappers, will it?” asked Emma. “Their camp is close by.”
Josiah grunted, although Emma didn’t quite know if it were out of consent or disapproval. His face looked tired, his shoulders weary. He had held onto her through the night, even in his sleep, with a quiet frenzy that both settled and excited Emma’s heart. She had never before felt so wanted or loved by Josiah.
He looked up, his gaze meeting hers. A half smile parted his lips, making Emma yearn for another of his gentle kisses. A small groan rumbled across the room to Emma, and she knew he had had a similar thought.
“You don’t want to go see them trappers this early in the morning, do you, Emma? Whatever you’ve got to say to Will, can wait until later.”
Emma could hear the plead in Josiah’s voice, but steeled herself against it. “Waiting won’t make anything better, Josiah.”
“Well, it’d sure make me feel better.” Reclining on the buffalo robes, Josiah folded his hands beneath his head, as though intending to remain right where he was.
His posturing didn’t ruffle Emma. “The trappers’ camp isn’t that far, Josiah. I can go without you.”
Josiah harrumphed, though Emma thought she detected a grin threatening to form around his mouth.
“Muleheaded, woman. I wouldn’t put it past her.” His head turned to Emma, and she could see a flicker of admiration in his eyes. “We’ll go, after I’ve had my nap. And Emma,” he said, his tone deepening as he spoke, “yer to wait until I get up. I don’t want you going there without me.”
“It’s only up the mountain, Josiah.”
“I’m meaning it, Emma. You stay put until I’m rested.”
She wanted to argue he didn’t need more sleep, having just awoke.
“And stop yer thinking, so I can git to sleep.”
“I’ll wait,” Emma said, crossing her arms, “but I’d like to see you make me stop thinking.”
When Josiah looked at her, she saw no lightheartedness in his gaze. He didn’t feel playful.
“I won’t go without you,” she said quietly.
“Nestle with me, Emma?”
The hint of frantic desperation in his voice melted Emma even further. She crawled into bed, and he latched onto her, his heart thumping against her as he tried to sleep.
“Don’t be frightened,” Emma said, comforting Josiah with a soft caress that made him groan. “Everything will work out.”
“I ain’t frightened,” he said in muffled protest, his face buried against her shoulder. He trembled, and Emma felt him quickly stiffen.
“Mary,” Emma called to the child playing beside the fireplace, “would you fetch our Bible, please?”
A moment later, Mary lifted the heavy volume, resting it on Josiah’s back. The girl saw her father hiding against Emma and giggled, not understanding his trouble.
At the sound of her childish laughter, Josiah hid his face deeper into Emma’s dress.
“Mary,” Emma gave her a sobering look, “your pa needs some compassion.”
“He is not feeling well?” Mary asked, her amusement turning into concern. She squatted beside the bed, and gently stroked his hair.
“Make her go away, Emma,” Josiah pleaded without looking up.
“He’ll be fine,” Emma said to the girl, motioning with her chin for Mary to leave.
Mary hesitated, her eyes now filled with worry.
“Go on, Little One. He’ll be fine.”
Reluctantly, Mary left the robes to go back to her place by the fire.
Outside their sturdy log walls, Emma could hear the wind howling and knew the storm had come in full force. Josiah moved slightly, checking over his shoulder to see if Mary watched him. She did, and he quickly turned his face back into Emma’s dress.
Standing the Bible on end, Emma peered over his shoulder to read out loud from the Book of Psalms. “‘For Thou, LORD, wilt bless the righteous; with favour wilt Thou compass him as with a shield,'” Emma read quietly, her voice soft against the storm raging outside. “Did you hear that, Josiah? He will surround us with His favor, protecting us like a shield.”
“I heard.” Josiah took a deep, calming breath. “I weren’t frightened though.”
Emma nudged his shoulder. “You weren’t?”
With a low groan, Josiah raised his head, his eyes locking with hers. “Maybe a little. But it don’t come easy, Emma, me admitting my own weakness. A man likes to think he’s stronger than this.”
“You’re strong enough, Josiah.” She brushed back the hair falling in her face, those long wild tresses of a man unaccustomed to scissors.
“Emma,” he sighed longingly, “I wish we didn’t have to go back and face them trappers again. I wish we could stay in this lodge, and you’d never have to taste any of what I did, when I was talking to Will last night. He was angry with me for good reason, but he doesn’t like Indians, and I’m fearful you’ll git hurt again.”
“We’re going to have to trust in God’s favor,” Emma said with a brave smile.
Josiah touched her cheek, his face softening with tenderness. “Wish I had as much mettle as you, Emma. Yer quite a woman.”
“Careful, Josiah, you keep saying that, and one one of these days, I’ll believe you.”
“I wish you would,” he grinned. He caressed her face, seemingly content to stay there forever. “I’m sorry I got you into this,” he said, exhaling a sigh. “Whatever happens Emma, I’m sorry.”
“I thought you said Mr. Shaw took a liking to me,” Emma smiled, patting Josiah’s arm consolingly. “I’ll do all right, Josiah.”
“I don’t like feeling this helpless, Emma. I don’t like it one bit. Now that he knows, he can cause us a lot of trouble.” Dropping his head back to her shoulder, Josiah clutched his wife even harder than before. “I’ve never felt so vulnerable in all my life.”
“Favor, Josiah. Remember God’s favor.”
“If I get to squeezing you too tight, just holler,” he said with a grin in his voice. “All right, Emma, let’s go see Will and George, like yer wanting.” He rolled off Emma, the Bible falling to the buffalo robes as he moved. Mary stepped forward, offering to put the Bible back; Emma watched the expression on Josiah’s face, thinking she had never before seen him look so humbled. Avoiding Mary’s gaze, Josiah handed her the Bible.
“Are you all right, Pa?”
Josiah grunted. “I reckon.”
As though not quite convinced, Mary leaned forward to look directly into his face.
“Mary, I’m fine. Go on now, and put that Bible away.”
“Pa?” Mary asked, shifting the heavy book in her small arms.
With a low groan, Josiah sat up, casting Emma a helpless glance before turning to look back at Mary. “What is it, Cub?”
“I love you, Pa.”
The girl’s words overcame Josiah, for when he answered, Emma heard the emotion in his voice. “I love you, too, Mary.”
“Do you want me to hug you, too?” Mary asked.
Swiping at the wetness in his eyes, Josiah hugged his little girl. When he let her go, Josiah had difficulty meeting anyone’s gaze as he moved about the cabin, preparing to leave.
“Josiah,” Emma asked, as he shrugged on his heavy coat, “could I use that small mirror of yours?”
“What fer?” he asked, his eyes still avoiding hers.
“I’d like to see my likeness before we leave,” said Emma.
A grin broke out on Josiah’s face as he fastened the coat.
“I just want to see if my hair is tidy,” Emma said a little defensively. “Josiah, if you start teasing me–”
“All right, Emma, I ain’t going to tease,” he said, going over to his belongings. After fishing around in a bag, he pulled out the small mirror. “I have a request, afore I give this to you, though.”
“I only want it for a moment,” said Emma.
“Yer not to cry because of what you see,” said Josiah. “I can stand a lot of things, but when you cry… Emma, when you cry…” His voice drifted off in a great sigh, and Emma knew he remembered finding her weeping under the trees last night, alone, and in the dark.
“I won’t shed a single tear,” Emma said stoutly. “I promise.”
“Then sit down,” said Josiah, motioning for Emma to obey. “Mary, git over here. Yer Ma has need of you.”
“Josiah, what on earth are you doing?” asked Emma, as he lifted the girl onto her lap.
Josiah grinned, his eyes daring to meet Emma’s. “You don’t cry so much, when you know Mary’s watching. Here’s yer mirror, Emma. You can keep it.”
Emma accepted the mirror from her husband, feeling slightly ridiculous for his making such a big deal over her not crying. She knew she wasn’t pretty, and seeing her reflection should come as no big shock. Holding the mirror before her face, Emma’s heart sank as she saw the same dirty face as before, bleakly staring back at her with stringy blonde hair. Tears filled her eyes, and Josiah grunted, as though to remind her of her promise.
“Mary, give yer ma a hug.”
The girl obeyed with a broad smile. “Ma, you always cry when you see your reflection.”
“I’m not crying– not yet,” sighed Emma, returning the girl’s hug. “There, I’m better now.” Emma held the mirror out to Josiah.
“It’s yers,” he said, going back to the pegs on the wall for his fox cap. “Such trinkets are fer women, so that rightfully belongs to you.”
In spite of her continual disappointment whenever she gazed into the looking glass, Emma smiled gratefully, for she didn’t have many belongings of her own. “Thank you, Josiah.”
He looked up at her as he sat on the floor, tying his snowshoes. That grin– that broad, unabashed grin– spread across his mouth, softening his chiseled features. “There’s my sunshine,” he said contentedly.
Tucking the mirror into the bag at her belt, Emma had a suspicion of how Josiah used such trinkets in the past. This was something a woman would like, and if she wanted it badly enough… Emma shuddered, pushing aside the unpleasant thought as completely as she could. This man belonged to her, and to no other woman.
“Afore we go, Emma,” said Josiah, standing up in his snowshoes in the center of the cabin, “I want you to pray about today. Pray it goes well.”
“Why don’t you do it, yourself?” asked Emma, bundling the last of Mary’s blankets about the girl.
“I ain’t so good at such things,” Josiah said reluctantly.
“The head of the family is usually the one who leads the others in prayer,” said Emma.
Bowing his head when Emma and Mary were ready, Josiah talked to God. “Yer knowing I deserve whatever trouble comes my way because of what I’ve done,” began Josiah, “but God, we both know Emma doesn’t deserve any punishment. And Mary here, she’s innocent, too. Fer their sakes, God, I’m asking fer some of that favor Emma read about this morning in the Bible. I sure could use it.” Josiah awkwardly looked up from his prayer, unsure what came next. “Oh, in Jesus’ name, Amen,” he finished with a nod. “That’s the best I can do fer now, Emma. Reckon it’ll be enough?”
“God hears the prayers of His children, so I reckon it’s enough,” smiled Emma.
Josiah gave Emma a tight bear hug, and then had to give one to Mary, as well.
Everyone ready, Josiah opened the cabin door. The storm had become worse, snow blinding them from seeing anything but the closest trees near their home. Lifting an arm to shield his view, Josiah surveyed the mountain.
“Maybe we should wait,” Emma said, struggling to be heard over the wind. “We could go some other time, Josiah.”
Josiah shook his head. “I want to git this over with. Take hold of Mary’s hand, and don’t let go of my coat until we reach their camp.”
Obeying, Emma gripped Mary, and then took hold of Josiah’s bearskin coat; Emma linked the family together, so no one would become separated in the snowstorm.
The storm blew fierce, but the trappers’ camp lay just beyond the trees, in back of the cabin, making it rather convenient to brave the elements for simply a visit. This time, Josiah didn’t shout a greeting to the shelter, but quickly motioned for Emma and Mary to crawl inside.
In the dimness, on the other side of the room, Will lay in his buffalo robe, his eyes opening wide as Emma and her family gathered before the fire to shed snowshoes and blankets.
“George,” Will kicked the young man with his booted leg, “wake up, we’ve got company!”
“What?” George yawned, his demeanor sobering when he saw Josiah.
“I see you’ve got the meat drying out,” Josiah said, looking at the rack that had been set up near the fire. On it hung all the elk meat from yesterday’s hunt.
“I followed your directions as best I could,” George said, propping himself on an elbow but not bothering to sit up. “When the meat’s done, you can take half.”
“That ain’t necessary,” said Josiah, his face turning back to the flames as though he would rather stare at them than George. “You were the one who brought down that elk.”
“Only because you gave me the shot,” said George.
“I won’t turn down meat when it’s offered,” said Josiah, slanting a look at Will out of the corners of his eyes.
Wanting to be the first to speak to Will, Emma put on her best company manners– smile included. “How are you feeling today, Mr. Shaw? Is your fever any better?”
“Thank you for asking, Ma’am, I think it’s gone.” Will returned Emma’s smile with as much genuine warmth as she could’ve hoped for. “I’ve been eating regularly, ever since your last visit, and I believe my strength is returning.”
Josiah harrumphed, and Emma nudged him to keep silent.
“I’m very happy to hear it,” Emma said with a smile. Secretly, she hoped to demonstrate to these trappers that her life with Josiah should not be pitied. She hoped an invitation might help. “Sometime when you feel up to it, you and Mr. Hughes should come to our cabin for a visit. You would be most welcome.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Brown,” said Will, giving George another kick when the young man didn’t readily accept the invitation, “we’d be happy to come.”
A sigh came from George’s direction, and he lay back down on his bed, as though wanting more sleep.
“You’ll have to pardon George, Mrs. Brown, for even though he comes from a well-heeled family, he never learned his manners.”
At this, George sat up, his face a scowl. “You don’t have to make any excuses for me, Will. I can talk for myself, if you and Josiah will let me.”
“Nobody’s stopping you,” said Will. “But mind your language. There’s ladies present.”
“What I’ve got to say can be said anywhere.” George threw back his robe, sitting cross-legged before the fire, like Josiah. His eyes glittered against the flickering light, the sound of the storm howling through the entrance as he began to speak. “Josiah, Will told me of your talk last night. I don’t know what’s gotten into Will, but he seems to think you honorable, even though you captured one of our women and held her until it’s nearly impossible for her to return to her family.”
“I am her family,” said Josiah, staring a hole straight through George. “She’s got no one but me.”
“Is that true, Ma’am?” George turned to Emma. “Do you have any family still living?”
“Besides those in this shelter, no, there is no one.”
George remained silent a few moments, as though taking this into consideration. “Very well, I won’t insist on her being returned–”
At the mere mention of Emma’s being returned, Josiah’s hand immediately went to the knife at his hip. Emma grabbed Josiah’s wrist, and he slowly relaxed.
“Mr. Hughes, if you have more to say,” sighed Emma, “I suggest you hurry.”
In the background, Emma heard the muffled chuckles of Will, laughing at his friend’s expense.
Having gone pale at the sight of Josiah’s sheathed knife, George nervously cleared his throat. “Despite what it says in the Declaration of Independence, I don’t believe all men are created equal. The races are not equal and never will be, no matter what the governing principals of our nation may claim, it’s simply not true.”
Narrowing his eyes at George, Josiah looked somewhat baffled. “Those are a lot of fancy words. Anyone here git what he said?”
“He’s saying you’re not his equal,” said Will, a hint of disgust in his tone. “I may be an Indian hater, but at least it’s for a better reason than George. Our horses, along with our pack mules, were taken by a thieving Indian who was supposed to be our guide. He left us to die in these mountains, and then you came along, Josiah, and took my limb. I suppose your being a half-breed just gave me an easy excuse to hate you.”
“Thanks,” Josiah said dryly. “I’ll remember that the next time your life needs saving.” With a tired groan, Josiah looked at Emma, and she hoped she gave him an encouraging smile. “You men may not like me, or even approve of me, but come next spring, I’ll do the best I can to git you both back to the nearest trading post, alive.”
“Why?” asked Will. He stared at Josiah, straight in the face without flinching.
Josiah stared back. “God wouldn’t like me to do otherwise, and neither would Emma.”
Will furrowed his brows, though a smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “See what I mean, George? This wild buck’s being tamed by a woman!”
Though Josiah looked insulted, he said nothing.
With an assessing stare in his blue eyes, Will grinned at Josiah. “I’d wager a great deal you haven’t been like this for long. I’ve seen your friends, Josiah, and if you were half the wild men they are, then I’d say you’ve done some changing.” Respect sounded in Will’s voice, surprising Emma.
Then Will faced her, his expression open and friendly. “How long have you been with him, Mrs. Brown?”
The question caught Emma off guard. “I don’t know,” she said, trying to measure those nameless days but unable to give a number, “it was before the first snow. It’s difficult to say, for other than the obvious fact this is winter, I don’t even know today’s date.”
“You don’t?” asked George. He pulled out a book, opening it to a page with handwritten words. “According to my journal, this is February 14th, 1837.”
“February?” Emma felt numb. “And the day? What day of the week?”
“What day? Why, it’s Tuesday, Ma’am.”
“Tuesday.” Emma put a hand over her mouth, quickly searching for the entrance.
“Em, what’s wrong?” Josiah asked, as she unsuccessfully tried to get past him, for he sat by the entrance. “Are you hurt or something?”
Helpless to speak without tears, Emma shook her head, her hand still clamped over her mouth. When he saw the tears forming in her eyes, Josiah put his arm around her shoulders, letting her weep against his hunting shirt in private.
“What’d you do to her?” Will asked George angrily. “I told you to watch your language!”
“I did!” George said, defending himself as best he could. “I only gave her the date!”
Even though her face smothered against Josiah’s chest, Emma could feel Josiah’s muscles tighten, and sensed the glaring look he must be giving George at that very moment.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” George stammered awkwardly, “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Drying her tears, Emma emerged from Josiah’s protective embrace. She had to show the men she was all right. “I’m not offended, Mr. Hughes– at least, not by knowing the weekday. Thank you for giving it to me.”
With a puzzled nod, George closed his journal and put it away.
“We’ve been holding Sunday service on every seventh day,” explained Emma, “but I could only guess what day it really was. Please excuse my tears, it’s only that it’s been so long…” Emma’s voice wavered, “so long since I’ve truly known the date.” The strong arm about her wouldn’t let go, and Emma happily rested against its owner’s shirt. “It’s Tuesday, Josiah. It’s Tuesday.”
“I’ll be happy about it, after you’ve stopped crying,” said Josiah. “Maybe we should leave.”
“The snow’s coming down heavy,” Will said cautiously. “George and I wouldn’t mind your company for a little longer. Would you stay for lunch? George shot an elk yesterday, and we’d be pleased to share a meal with you.”
The “you” in Will’s invitation had included the whole family, and since Emma felt inclined to eat, Josiah accepted. Before the meal, the Brown family bowed their heads, quietly saying a prayer over their food. To Emma’s amazement, George bowed his head, too, though Emma felt it didn’t have anything to do with being polite; he had probably been raised with some religion, and had bowed his head out of habit when in the presence of others who did.
The elk tasted good in Emma’s mouth, and to her surprise, she finished off the meal with little effort. Tucked at her side sat Mary, munching meat, her face all attention as she listened to the talk of the grownups.
In the cabin, Josiah spoke little of his adventures, but here with these men, his talk filled with Indian weaponry, hunting tactics his father had taught him, and things he had learned from the Blackfoot as a boy. Will listened to every word, laughing and slapping his knee when Josiah told of his first meeting with a grizzly, and then the harrowing escape of another, when “a full growed man.” As Emma rather expected, George showed incredulity when Josiah told of his scalp being ripped back by the griz, and she hid her amusement when Josiah pulled back his hair to reveal the scars.
“Wish I could’ve been with you for that one,” Will sighed with longing. “Sounds like a grand adventure, Josiah.”
Grand? Emma shook her head, grateful she hadn’t been there. She looked at Little Mary, the girl’s mouth all proud smiles as Mary saw the reaction of Will and George to her pa’s exploits.
The trappers’ eyes grew wide as Josiah told them of the mountain men he knew– men of great renown, such as Kit Carson.
“You know of him?” Will leaned forward in earnest. “Kit Carson?”
“I recollect a few seasons back, at rendezvous,” said Josiah, “a bully of a Frenchman– Shunar he was called– made a terrible ruckus about how he could whip any man in camp. Shunar beat anyone he didn’t like, which included just about everyone but himself, and on this day he’d already gotten riled and whipped two or three men. He said Frenchmen weren’t any trouble to flog, and as fer Americans, there wasn’t a man there who could take him. When Kit heard that, he decided he’d had enough of the braggart. Kit said he was the worst American there, and that many others could thrash Shunar, but were too afraid to do it. Kit said if Shunar didn’t shut up, he’d rip his guts.”
“Kit Carson said that?” asked George, his mouth open in astonishment.
“He did,” said Josiah. “Shunar wouldn’t back down, so Kit met the bully, each armed with a loaded weapon. The men fired at the same time, the report of their weapons combining into one explosion of gunpowder and smoke. Kit’s shot hit the Frenchman’s arm, while all Kit got was his hair cut a little closer then he liked. When Kit grabbed another loaded weapon, Shunar hollered surrender, and he didn’t bully anyone else in camp fer the rest of Kit’s stay. Fer all I know, Kit saved someone’s life, taking that Frenchman the way he did.”
“This is my first season in these parts, so I’ve yet to meet the man,” said Will, leaning back with a longing groan. “I sure would’ve given a lot to see him whip that bully.”
A quiet hush filled the shelter as Josiah spoke of lands far from here, of native peoples and their varied customs. Josiah had trekked up and down the Northern Rocky Mountains, seeing a great deal, and living as fully as he could. He had known giants of men– Indian and white man alike– men who honored their word and would give their life to keep it. As he spoke, Josiah’s eyes burned with a distant fire, as though seeing things the rest of them could not. These mountains were in his blood, as much a part of him as his own limbs.
“As many places as I’ve been,” said Josiah, “this is the land of my mother’s people. It always pulls me back, and when I am old, I will die here.”
“You will never leave?” asked Will. Emma thought she detected a note of sadness in his voice. “This talk of the past is good, but times are changing, Josiah. Even now, beaver isn’t worth as much as it used to. Fashionable gentlemen no longer require beaver to make their hats, but silk. I only came as far North as I did, to trap the last of the beaver; I had hopes it would be here in abundance.” Will sighed, his thoughts evidently taking him somewhere he didn’t like. “We wanted to come North, but didn’t intend to wander into Blackfoot country. We’ve our Indian guide to thank for that.”
“It pays to beware who you trust,” said Josiah.
Will nodded in ready agreement. “I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. I’m through trusting any more full-blooded Indians.”
When Josiah’s teeth set on edge, Emma knew Will had taken Josiah’s remark in a way that hadn’t been intended.
“But what of the remaining beaver? Where are they?” asked George.
“There ain’t many left, even up here,” Josiah said in a low voice, his face furrowed in thought, his hands resting on his knees as he spoke. “It’s harder to make a living the way my pa used to, that’s fer certain.”
“Then it’s time to think of the future,” said George. “I hear there’s money in buffalo robes.”
“Now those dumb creatures, I know,” said Will. “I’ve shot plenty of buffalo in my day.”
“It true there’s money to be had in robes,” said Josiah, “until they git to be as scarce as beaver. I remember the days when things were more plentiful than now, and what you said is true– times is changing fast. But what’s a man supposed to do? This is my home.”
“Men of your caliber are rare,” Will said thoughtfully. “You’ve spent your life in this wilderness, while the rest of us are just visitors– even for all our brave talk, that’s all we are– visitors. I fear for you, Josiah. If you don’t change with the times, I fear what will become of you.”
“There’s no need for such talk,” Josiah smiled, absently rubbing his knees with the palms of his hands. “I’ll make do. There’s still elk and deer to hunt, peaks and rivers to explore, traps to set. These mountains will never be tamed, so I ain’t overly worried.”
With a steady gaze, Will looked at Josiah. “If you can be tamed, then so can these mountains.”
Josiah’s eyes narrowed, as though not in agreement. He said nothing, and for a long moment, the shelter lay completely silent.
“Ma?” Mary tugged at Emma’s dress. The girl raised her mouth to Emma’s ear, whispering, “I have to visit outside.”
Not needing to be told what Mary had whispered, Josiah moved so the girls could pass through the entrance. “Keep close to the shelter, Emma,” he said, as she strapped on her snowshoes, “the storm hasn’t let up, yit.”
Outside, frozen wind cut into Emma’s face, forcing her to turn away from the horizon to keep from getting frostbitten. Snow filled the air everywhere she turned, and after taking several steps, Emma lost sight of the trappers’ shelter.
It happened so quickly, it terrified her.
“Hurry,” Emma told Mary, urging the child to relieve herself beside a tree. “We must hurry.”
Squinting into the wind, Emma braved the frostbite to look for their tracks. There they were, faint impressions, filling with snow. Emma prayed for God’s help, for when those tracks vanished, they would be lost.
As Emma contemplated her situation, a broad shouldered figure appeared through the snowstorm. Emma didn’t need to see a face to know it was Josiah.
“Thought I’d best come,” he said, shielding his eyes with the arm of his bearskin coat. “This storm ain’t gitting any better. You about done, Mary?”
“Yes,” Mary’s small voice sounded like a faint whisper in the howling wind, but when her steady hand tucked inside Emma’s, she showed no fright. “I am ready, Pa.”
“Let’s go home,” said Josiah. He turned, needing no tracks to find his way, and Emma followed hard at his side all the way back to their cabin.
The door swung open and Mary rushed inside to build the fire they had left smoldering while gone. The grownups followed, Josiah helping Emma to take off her heavy capote and then her snowshoes. He didn’t often do this, and Emma wondered at his thoughtfulness.
“Emma,” he asked, taking off his bearskin garment, “did you lose yer way back there, afore I came to fetch you?”
Emma sighed. She had hoped to keep that from Josiah. “I suppose I did,” she said, going to the hearth to warm herself before a cheery blaze. “I lost sight of the shelter, though I intended to follow my tracks back, so I suppose I wasn’t truly lost.” Standing, she looked over her shoulder at Josiah.
“Yer learning, Emma,” he said with a grin, as though knowing she sought his approval. He came up behind her, wrapping his arms about her as they both faced the fire. “I reckon God gave us favor, Em. When I told Will we were leaving, he said he wanted to come visit us real soon. Oh, Em, I’m so tired.”
Emma turned to see Josiah. He had gotten a lot of rest that morning, but that had been before talking with the trappers. Evening would soon darken the snowy skies even more, and Emma had to admit to some weariness, herself.
Josiah let go of her, and went to the door to put the bar on. “I know it’s early yit,” he said with an endearing grin, “but I’ve a mind to laze around the fire with my family. Let the mountainside blow itself to bits, I’m going to enjoy some peace and quiet with Emma and Mary.” As if to make it official, Josiah pulled off his moccasins and then bent over to unwind the strips of cloth that insulated his feet against the snow. “Mary, I’m feeling in a generous mood– do you want to sleep with yer ma and me, tonight?”
“Yes!” Mary jumped up to gather her dolls, while Josiah made a large bed before the fire.
When Josiah saw the dolls, he groaned, but made no protest. Instead, he sat down in the middle of the bed and stretched out, his mouth wide in a yawn. As Emma sat down on his right side, her mind tried to work out a measure of time, now that she knew for certain today’s date.
Josiah had rescued her in Autumn, Emma guessing it had been sometime in September or October. She had no way of knowing for certain, but if she were correct, she had been with Josiah for about five months. Five months! Surely, that could not be all? Several lifetimes had passed within those five months, lifetimes filled with change and then more change.
“Emma, what are you thinking?” Josiah folded his arm beneath his head, his eyes peering at her inquisitively. “What’s going on in that purty head of yers?”
“Josiah,” Emma said in awe, “I think I’ve only been with you for five months.”
The look in Josiah’s face puzzled her, for he didn’t seem a bit surprised.
“And?” he asked, as though waiting for her to finish the thought.
“Five months, Josiah! It hasn’t been that long!”
“I could’ve told you that,” he said with a slight shrug.
“It didn’t surprise you when George said this was February?”
“I can’t say it ever crossed my mind,” said Josiah, as Mary sat down on his left side with some pemmican. “I can read the seasons well enough without having to know which month it is. Mary, git some pemmican fer yer ma.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Emma, rubbing a sore foot that had bothered her on the way home. “I had a big lunch, and don’t need any supper. Truly, Josiah, you weren’t surprised over the date?”
“If I start seeing any more weight fall off you,” said Josiah, an edge of warning in his tone, “then you’ll eat when I tell you to, without any argument.” A large hand pulled her by the ankle, drawing her foot close for inspection.
“What’s wrong with my weight?” Emma asked indignantly. “Ouch! let go!”
Josiah frowned. “Tender, is it?”
“Only when you grip it so tightly,” Emma said with a whimper, drawing her foot back to safety, out of his grasp. “I thought my weight was about right, for a woman in my condition.”
“If it starts to swelling, let me know.” Josiah closed his eyes as though ready for sleep.
“Josiah?” Emma nudged his shoulder. “About my weight– I’m not too thin for your liking, am I?”
An eye opened, and he smiled at her. “What makes you think that?”
Emma bit her lip. “You once said you liked your women soft.”
“I reckon yer soft enough, Emma,” Josiah said, pulling her down to his side with a low chuckle. He placed her head on his shoulder, hugging her close with his arm. A contented sigh affirmed the truth of his words, and Emma kissed his shirt.
“I tell you, Em,” Josiah said with a grin in his voice, “God sure did set a trap fer my soul, when He put you in my way. I didn’t want anything to do with God, but when I started loving you, He sure got me good.” Josiah’s chest moved as Mary cuddled into his other shoulder. “You needing another trip outside yit, Mary?”
“Good.” A deep breath filled the hunting shirt, and then exhaled in another sigh of contentment.
“Josiah,” Emma weighed her words carefully, “I don’t suppose you’d ever consider leaving the mountains?”
The muscles beneath her head constricted, and Emma suddenly wished she’d never thought it out loud. Josiah would never leave. If she knew anything about him, she knewthat.
“Are you wanting to leave, Emma?”
“Not leave you,” said Emma, raising her head to see his face, “only the mountains.” Josiah’s jaw was working again. “I wonder if you’d ever consider living in a settlement, or a town, or maybe even a city. You could find work there, and we wouldn’t have to rely on hunting and trapping for survival.”
“That ain’t fer us,” said Josiah, firmly placing her head back against his chest. “No, Emma, you don’t belong there anymore. These here mountains are our home, and that’s where we’ll stay.”
The finality in his voice sank Emma’s spirits, and she realized for the first time how much she desperately wanted to return to civilization. The two trappers were a small taste of her former life, and Emma missed it sorely. Oh for a general store, church, school, the society of other women!
“You ain’t fixing to leave me, are you, Emma?”
Emma quietly scolded herself for allowing such thoughts, for Josiah had sensed her longing. “No, Josiah, I’ll never leave you.”
“But, yer wanting to go back, ain’t you.”
He asked no question, and Emma offered no answer.
“This is yer life, Emma. You may not be liking it, but it’s all I can give.”
“I never said I didn’t like it,” said Emma, feeling a little resentful at the accusation.
“Then speak of something else,” Josiah said stiffly.
“I’m sorry I brought it up.” Emma no longer felt like nestling, but Josiah’s hand firmly kept her at his side, and she found she couldn’t move without making any more of a fuss than she already had.
Mary came as a welcome interruption, and Emma resolved to keep her own mouth shut. Josiah had been in a good mood, before she had voiced thoughts that were best left unsaid.
“Can I leave the mountains when I am older?” asked Mary, ignorantly moving into territory Emma had just left.
The scowl in Josiah’s voice couldn’t be missed. “What do you want to go and do that fer?”
“The white man does not live like us,” said Mary, evidently having gleaned this observation from watching the trappers, “so I will learn to live like them.”
“Enough,” said Josiah, “you ain’t old enough to be going anywhere just now, so let’s have no more talk of leaving.” He sounded weary. “The next woman who speaks of such things will sleep by herself.”
“Pa,” Mary said with a giggle, “I am not a woman!”
“Woman or not, you’ll be sleeping by yerself.”
“I will be quiet,” said Mary, cuddling a doll so closely, Emma could see the hem of a brightly colored calico dress resting on Josiah’s chest.
Lightly touching the fabric, Emma recalled the bolts of cloth for sale at the general store, back home in Indiana.
“Emma, I meaning it,” Josiah’s chest rumbled threateningly. “You’ll be sleeping by yerself, tonight.”
“I didn’t say anything,” said Emma.
“Maybe not, but you were thinking it.”
“Pa?” asked Mary.
“I won’t argue with you, Josiah, but you can’t stop me from thinking.”
“I have to go outside, Pa.”
“Emma, you’ll do what I say.”
Freeing herself from Josiah’s arm, Emma struggled to her feet. Maybe since she carried a child inside her womb, her mood shifted more easily, but whatever the cause, Emma didn’t feel like talking to Josiah.
“Where are you going, Emma?”
“I’m taking Mary outside,” said Emma, putting on her heavy capote. She gathered a warm blanket, and bundled Mary without looking in Josiah’s direction. His dark gaze pierced her, and she didn’t want to succumb to its effects.
Shotgun in hand, Emma took Mary outside. The storm still persisted, so Emma kept her daughter close to the cabin.
The cold did little to cool Emma’s temper, but when she took Mary inside, the grieved look on Josiah’s face did what the frigid temperature could not. She felt remorse.
“Are you angry with me, Emma?” he asked.
Every once in a while, Emma glimpsed Josiah’s weakness, and on those occasions, it reminded her that though her husband looked strong and invulnerable, he was only flesh and blood.
“I won’t stop you from thinking whatever you want,” said Josiah, moving to his feet in one fluid action. He stood before her, his arms empty. “I don’t want to hang onto you so hard, you come to resent me, Emma.”
“I’m sorry I lost my patience,” said Emma, stepping into his embrace. Strong arms encircled her, and Emma once again shoved aside the future. Whenever she gave it very much thought, the future loomed before her like a shrouded specter– dark, uncertain, and foreboding. She had to give it back to God’s hands, for she couldn’t do anything else.
“I’ll make you happy, Emma,” Josiah said, nuzzling her with more desperation than desire. “If it’s the last thing I do, I promise I will.”
“Hush,” Emma put a hand to his mouth, “I’m already happy.”
As they stood before the fire, Josiah’s large frame covered hers in a giant hug. He clung to her tightly. “Don’t ever leave me, Em. I don’t know what I’d do, if you left.”
“Easy now,” Emma managed to give him a calm smile, “Mary’s the only one who’ll eventually leave. This muleheaded woman is staying with her husband, right where she belongs.”
“Stay with me forever, Em,” he said quickly, squeezing her even harder. A tap on the shoulder, and he gave her room to breathe. “You’ll nestle with me, tonight?”
Emma smiled. “So I’m not banished to a separate bed?” She hoped she sounded playful and calm, for Josiah’s frantic moments had a tendency to make her frantic– and at least one of them had to think clearly.
For the rest of the evening and all of that night, Emma didn’t move from Josiah’s side; she kept close, filling his arms whenever he reached for her, returning his affection without question or demand. When Josiah responded with complete and utter gentleness, Emma knew how hard he was trying to please her.
The next morning, Josiah left Emma and Mary, and headed to the trappers’ shelter to start Will moving. Up until now, Will had relieved himself in a water-tight leather bag, and George had kept it emptied and Will clean. Josiah didn’t like the fact Will never budged from his bed. It wasn’t healthy.
The heavy snows of yesterday were only a distant memory as Josiah tramped his way back to the shelter, his rifle loaded and ready but his mind on other things besides danger. Emma had looked happy that morning, hadn’t she? Of course she had. That sunshine of hers had chased away his snowstorm, shedding fresh rays of hope on today. The nature around him mirrored his soul, for the sun had parted the thick mantle of clouds, revealing the blue sky that had been there all along. Josiah thought about that for a moment, before crawling inside the shelter. Just because he couldn’t see God, didn’t mean He wasn’t there.
With a peaceful smile, Josiah ducked inside.
“The storm’s let up,” said Josiah, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dimness as he undid his snowshoes. He had awakened Will, for the trapper stirred at the sound of Josiah’s voice. Even George had slept the early morning through, his yawns and protests at having been awakened filling the lodge. “You men are in sorry shape,” grinned Josiah, disposed to be in a good mood this morning, even if they were not. “Git up, fer daylights burning.”
“What’s there to get up for?” asked George, his voice heavy and dull. “There’s nothing to do but eat and sleep, and go hunting.”
“Emma’s expecting you both to pay a visit to our lodge, this morning,” said Josiah, noting their look of immediate interest.
“That’s good of your wife,” said Will, disappointment soon overtaking his enthusiasm, “but I’m in no shape to leave.”
“When’s the last time you’ve left that robe?” asked Josiah. “You need to start moving, Will, or yer muscles are going to waste away to nothing.”
“Move?” Will’s face filled with despair. “How am I to move, without two legs beneath me?”
“You can crawl, can’t you?” asked Josiah, not allowing pity to creep into his voice. Will didn’t need pity, but resolve.
“I’m not crawling about like a cripple,” said Will.
“Crawling’s a start,” Josiah said with a harrumph. “When yer ready, I’ll make a wooden leg, but until you git strong enough to use it, you crawl.”
Folding his arms, Will spat in defiance. “I’d like to see you make me.”
The absence of “Indian” in Will’s challenge made Josiah grin, for it had been a perfect opportunity to hurl an insult.
“If yer wanting me to make you, I’ll be glad to oblige,” said Josiah, putting aside his flintlock and then his knife. “Afore this day is through, yer going to crawl.”
“I can’t!” Will said in loud protest. “Look!” He threw aside his robe, revealing his stump. “I don’t even have a knee!”
“Then you’ll drag yerself with yer elbows,” said Josiah, coming to Will’s bed as George gaped at Josiah in muted awe. Will was no small man, and it took someone with a lot of sand to go against such a man. “I’ve bested you once before, and I’ll do it again,” said Josiah, leveling his eyes with Will’s. “How about it? Do you feel like testing me?”
“I’m not in good health,” Will said in a whimper, only strengthening Josiah’s determination.
This was no way for a man to talk.
“Yer sounding like a woman,” said Josiah, taking Will by the scruff of the neck, “and now I want to see if you holler like one!” With that, Josiah hauled Will out of his sickbed and onto the boughs of cottonwood that lined the shelter floor.
Will thrashed about, suddenly crying out in pain as his boot scorched from getting too close to the fire.
“You ain’t hurt,” said Josiah, squatting over Will with a grin. “I was right though, you scream just like a woman.”
“Say that one more time!” Will said, his hands balling into fists. “Just once more!”
“All right,” said Josiah, grinning brazenly, “I will.” He backed out of the shelter, feet-first, his eyes never leaving Will’s. “Yer a balling woman, and if yer wanting to git even, I’m waiting.”
For all the insult, Will swallowed hard as his eyes took in the outdoors behind Josiah’s back.
“George, put his capote on him,” said Josiah. “We wouldn’t want him freezing to death, afore I put him in his place.”
The mock had its desired effect, and the apprehension disappeared from Will’s face as he hurried on the coat. “I’m coming for you, Josiah, so you just keep grinning.” Ready to leave the shelter, Will grabbed at the boughs beneath him, dragging himself along the ground one straining pull at a time. His arms were weak, his lungs huffing for breath, his forehead beading with sweat.
“I’m still waiting,” said Josiah, peering into the shelter as Will grabbed for his first handful of snow.
“I’m coming,” panted Will. He stopped a moment to gather his strength, and George moved to help him.
“Let him be,” said Josiah, motioning for George to back away. “This ain’t yer fight.”
“Come now, Josiah, certainly you don’t intend to fight him! Why, he’s an invalid!”
“Invalid, am I?” Will pulled himself through the entrance, shivering as his perspiration met the frigid air. Grunting as he went, Will dragged his heavy frame through the deep snow, his hands and elbows pulling, his leg pushing. At last, having gone as far as he could without complete bodily collapse, Will hitched himself into a seated position. His mouth stretched into a grin when he saw how much distance he had covered.
“You look surprised,” Josiah said wryly, hunching down to pat Will on the back. “You feel like that fight, now?”
“Reckon I’ll let the offense slide,” Will said with a grin. “I’m obliged to you, Josiah. I’m outside.” He slapped Josiah’s arm. “I made it outside under my own steam.”
“That you did,” said Josiah, “but George and I will carry you the rest of the way. My lodge is just downhill a little ways from here.”
Will nodded in assent, his breath still coming in huffs.
“George, git yerself on out here,” Josiah shouted at the man watching from the shelter, “and put on yer snowshoes and fetch me mine, and my rifle and knife!”
“I’ll get stronger,” said Will, putting an arm about Josiah’s neck as Josiah helped him onto his only leg. “This hoss still has some fight left in him!” Will paled a little at suddenly being upright, but he gritted his teeth and let George shoulder his other side. With Josiah on his right, and George on his left, Will’s leg had little more to do than trail behind him in the snow.
“I hadn’t realized how close we were to your cabin,” said George, as the back of a log dwelling soon came into view. “I thought the distance was further than this.”
“Looks like we’re neighbors,” Will grinned at Josiah. “I’ll be glad for the company, after sitting around all this time with George. He’s not that interesting.”
Josiah chuckled, glad when he heard George doing the same. The young man laughingly muttered something about Will being an unlearned clod, and then they were there.
They were at Josiah’s cabin.
“Emma, open the door!” said Josiah. “Yer company’s here!”