Mountain Wild – Common Ground : Chapter 16

Don’t forgot to read – The White Woman : Chapter 14


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At the sound of Josiah’s call, Emma hurried to the cabin door. She had spent all morning preparing for the trappers, and had put her new mirror to good use; after scrubbing her face and checking her likeness, her skin was now free from dirt and soot. She had retied her braids, pinning them up with the certainty of a mirror to guide her hands. Overall, Emma felt more confident about her appearance, and now winced at the thought of Will and George having seen her as she looked before.

Emma swung the door wide open, noticing her first polite smile came from Will.

“Good morning!” she greeted the men.

“Thank you kindly for the invitation, Mrs. Brown,” said Will, his coloring somewhat paler than yesterday. “Josiah managed to get me outside, so we’ve come to pay a visit.”

“Please, come in,” smiled Emma, moving to one side so they could enter. Behind her stood Mary, quietly staring at the stump protruding from Will’s capote.

George nodded at Emma as they lugged Will inside. “Morning, Ma’am.”

“Where do you want him, Emma?” asked Josiah, looking about for a likely place to deposit their guest. “How about the robes?”

“If it won’t put you to too much trouble,” said Will, grinning at the table in the corner of the room, “I wouldn’t mind a chair. It’d come as a welcome change.”

“Ain’t no trouble,” said Josiah, angling himself toward the nearest chair. “No one hardly sits in them, anyway.”

“I’m afraid we don’t use the table nearly as much as we should,” Emma heard herself apologize. “Josiah is more comfortable on the ground, so that’s where we spend most of our time. Would you like a blanket to keep warm, Mr. Shaw?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Brown,” said Will, balancing himself in the chair by placing a steadying palm on the table. “Feels odd sitting with one limb. I feel like I’m about to topple over.”

“Holler if you want down,” said Josiah, stooping to untie the snowshoes strapped to his feet. George followed Josiah’s example.

“Mary, please take their coats and put them in the corner,” said Emma, as the girl continued to stare at Will. “And remember your manners.”

Mary half smiled at the reminder, for Emma had instructed her not to stare as much as she had the day before.

With Will seated at the table, Josiah and George found places on the buffalo hides spread before the fire. Though Emma yearned to take a chair and formally sit with their guests, she didn’t want to make Mary uncomfortable and decided on the large bed, instead. This way, Mary could remain close at her side, for the girl struggled with shyness.

Emma smiled in amusement as everyone made themselves comfortable. With five people present, the cabin hadn’t been this crowded since Grandpap and Cora’s visit.

“Have you gentlemen eaten breakfast?” asked Emma, growing uncomfortable at the prolonged silence taking hold of everyone.

“We’ve eaten,” said George.

“But thanks for thinking of it,” Will added, shooting an exasperated look at his young friend. “We ate well this morning.”

“That reminds me,” said Josiah, “one of us should go back and put something in the entrance of yer shelter. You ain’t got a door, and animals could wander in at the smell of that drying elk.”

“George will do it,” said Will.

George didn’t look too happy at being volunteered, but assented and put his snowshoes back on.

“Don’t git lost now,” grinned Josiah, as Mary ventured forward with George’s capote. “I wouldn’t want to have to come looking fer you.”

Will laughed, but George didn’t.

After George had gone, Will spoke to Josiah in an open manner. “Give him time. He liked you better before he knew about your wife.”

“I’m knowing it. I don’t expect too much from George.” Josiah sat cross-legged by the fireplace, an orange glow highlighting one side of his rugged face.

“I know you were only jesting, but if he doesn’t come back in a short while, I’d appreciate you checking him.”

Josiah nodded. “I won’t let anything happen to the boy.”

“I appreciate it.”

Both men regarded each other with a smile. In that moment, Emma thought they looked very much alike. Experience knew experience when it saw it, and Will and Josiah saw it in each other.

The chair beneath Will tottered, and Will shifted his tailbone to find better balance. “I’ve got one good foot planted on the ground, but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough to keep me from falling.”

“Those chairs totter some,” said Josiah. “It ain’t yer leg causing trouble, though. You just ain’t used to sitting up yit.”

“I don’t want to rile you,” said Will, “but I don’t believe it’s polite to use that word in mixed company.”

Josiah frowned. “What are you meaning, ‘mixed’?”

“I’m meaning there’s ladies listening,” said Will, inclining his head in Emma and Mary’s direction. “It ain’t– I mean– isn’t polite to use that word in front of women. My ma always said it was kind of vulgar.”

Josiah looked more puzzled than ever. “What word are you meaning?”

“L-E-G,” said Will, spelling out the offending word in as quiet a voice as he could. He obviously didn’t want to horrify Emma or Mary with such language.

Awkwardly, Josiah glanced at Emma for help, though he didn’t ask for it outright. He couldn’t spell, and it was evident he felt self-conscious about showing weakness in front of other men.

“Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Mr. Shaw,” Emma quickly interceded, “but my husband uses ‘leg’ and other rough language that I’ve since grown accustomed to.”

Josiah harrumphed. “I won’t say ‘leg,’ if you don’t want me to, Emma.”

“It’s not a terribly big deal, Josiah.”

“I ain’t so backward that I can’t change some.”

“I never said you were.”

“Then I’ll stop saying it. But if I recollect correctly, you’ve said ‘leg’ a few times, yerself.”

Emma folded her arms indignantly. “Only in the presence of family.”

A faint smile creased Josiah’s mouth. “If I can’t say ‘leg,’ what am I supposed to call it?”

“I reckon ‘limb’ is the proper word,” said Will, scratching his chin with his free hand. “Your wife has a civilizing effect on you, Josiah.”

Shaking his head, Josiah harrumphed. “I ain’t as changed as all that. I am what I am, and Emma knows it.”

Hearing this, Emma couldn’t help but smile. Josiah kept changing little by little, all the time, whether he was aware of it or not.

“See that smile, Will? Right now, she’s thinking she owns me.” There was a slight edge in Josiah’s voice now, and it caused Emma’s smile to slowly fade. The fire burned and his dark eyes glinted with a defiance that simmered just above the surface of his features.

Deep within her heart, Emma’s heart felt a sharp tug, as though she were trying to go one way, and he, the other.

Josiah spoke to Will, but his eyes remained on her. “I can say things differently to sound more respectable, but the person saying them is the same. My pa always said you can take the man out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the man. Reckon that’s so with me, fer I’m never leaving.”

This declaration caused something hot to sting Emma’s eyes, and she blinked furiously to keep from weeping.

Josiah put out his hand and lightly touched her arm. “Don’t cry Em. I’ll talk of something else.”

She dried the dampness around her eyes and smiled. It wasn’t good for Will to know Josiah had made her cry, especially over this.

Will’s face searched hers, but he kept silent. All the while, he absently scratched at his chin, until it finally caught Josiah’s attention.

“You needing to bathe?”

“No, but this beard of mine sure scratches. I’d like a shave, but that thieving In– well, someone took my pack mule so I lost my razor and soap.”

“I don’t have any soap,” said Josiah, “but I can lend you a sharp knife. Just scrape the edge over yer face.”

Will winced at the thought. “It sounds painful, but I reckon I’ll borrow that knife.”

“Use some bear grease to make the blade easier on yer skin,” said Josiah, standing up to fetch the needed things from his belongs. “Emma, can Will borrow yer looking glass?”

“Of course,” said Emma, pulling out the prized possession from the small bag at her belt.

“A long time back, I used to shave,” said Josiah, placing the items on the table before Will. “Then I stopped, and grew myself a beard, thinking I’d look like a hairy overgrown white man covered in chin whiskers.”

“Why did you shave them off, Pa?”

Josiah raised his brow as he sat back down on the floor.

Mary had been listening.

“My trying to hide who I was made things worse, and I got beat up because some white trappers thought I was trying to make myself out to be the same as them.”

Eyes wide, Mary gulped in alarm.

“When my wounds healed, I plucked the whiskers from my face until the hair didn’t grow back. I did it out of spite. If the white man didn’t like looking at my face before, they sure weren’t going to like it now.”

“Did they leave you alone after that, Pa?”

Josiah didn’t answer.

“Did they?” asked Will.

Josiah looked at the trapper. “What do you think?”

“If you look for a fight, Josiah, you’ll always find it.”

“I don’t remember ever having to go looking fer trouble,” said Josiah. “It always had a way of finding me.”

“Then you shouldn’t have taken a white woman.” Will grimaced the instant he said the words. “Your wife seems to want to stay with you, so I won’t say anything more about it. You’re a good enough man, Josiah, but you walk around with your hands balled into angry fists. It isn’t a good way to live.”

“I didn’t choose to be treated this way.”

“Whenever you treat me as a friend,” said Will, leaning forward in his chair despite being off balance, “it’s harder for me to hate you– harder, though not impossible. Don’t give people a reason to hate you, Josiah. Make ’em work for it.”

Josiah stared at him thoughtfully.

“Like the Good Book says,” Will grinned, “if you do good to your enemies, you shame them into better treatment.”

“Ma?” Mary tugged at Emma’s arm. “Where is Mr. Hughes?”

“That’s right, he ain’t back yit, is he?” asked Josiah, his back straightening as he rested before the fireplace. “I’d best go see what’s become of him.”

“I can find him, Pa.” Mary sat up on her knees, her face lit with an eager smile. “Please, Pa? I know the way to the shelter. I will not git lost.”

“I want yer solemn word to keep to my tracks. Don’t stray, and if you find trouble, you high-tail it back to this lodge.”

The short distance between the two dwellings didn’t concern Emma, except for the fact Mary would be by herself. “Josiah, I don’t want her to go.”

“She’s old enough fer this. Is yer pistol loaded, Mary? Hand it over and let me make sure.”

“How old is the child?” asked Will, letting the knife remain untouched on the table awhile longer. He didn’t look eager for a rough shave.

“She’ll be six seasons, this summer,” said Josiah. He checked the pistol’s priming, then handed it back to Mary. “Do I have yer solemn word?”

“Yes, Pa,” Mary’s braids rubbed against her deerskin dress as she nodded. “I will be careful.”

Josiah smiled. “Put on yer blankets, then.”

It consternated Emma that her wishes were being ignored by Josiah, but she forced it aside, and helped Mary prepare for the cold. “Don’t be gone for long,” she quietly told the girl.

Mary was too small to shove open the heavy log door, so Emma opened it for her, silently praying for Mary’s safety. The skies were clear of snow, making the way safer for a child. As long as Mary didn’t wander or take too long, she wouldn’t become blinded in a snowstorm.

After checking Mary’s blankets one last time, Emma kissed her forehead and sent her off.

The deep snow kept trapping Mary’s feet, but as usual, she managed to make do without snowshoes. She had desired a pair of her own for some time now, but hadn’t wanted to ask her pa to fashion them. She figured he had enough troubles without her creating more work.

Snowshoe tracks marked the ground where Pa and the two trappers had crossed that morning, but the tracks that held her attention were the recent ones pointing up the mountainside. Mr. Hughes had made those.

A gust swept across Mary’s face, and she turned to keep the wind from robbing her breath. A tree moved, dumping snow from its ladened branches. Mary’s hand immediately went for the pistol tucked in her belt; she touched it’s polished wooden handle, but didn’t draw the weapon.

It was only the wind.

In the Blackfoot village she had known all her life, she had kept close to Naahks, her grandmother, and had never ventured out of sight of the long columns of smoke from the lodge fires. Mary looked over her shoulder, comforted by the smoke from the cabin’s chimney. Other Blackfoot children would be braver than her, and Mary had always felt shame at not possessing their courage. Of course, it hadn’t helped that they tormented her for being the daughter of the white man who kept bringing trappers into their hunting grounds.

The thought made Mary uneasy, and she wondered what those same people say now, if they found more trappers with her pa.

Mary scanned her surroundings, letting the environment speak to her as she had seen her great-grandfather do so many times before. Her ears strained for signs of danger, but only the wind could be heard, and the distant cry of a wolf in the valley below. Remembering her grandmother’s courage, Mary continued on.

The tracks she followed kept pointing up the mountain, and Mary felt certain she would soon see the shelter. Her certainty quickly vanished, however, when the tracks unexpectedly branched off from the others. Mary thought over her solemn promise to Pa. She wanted to go looking for Mr. Hughes, but wasn’t willing to break her word. She would stay on the path.

The sound of someone treading across the snow made Mary look up. She gazed at the forbidden snowshoe tracks, and saw a man coming toward her. The hood of his capote flapped in the wind at his back, and the sunlight shone into his brown eyes, reminding Mary of the color of a fawn, when newly born.

Mary waved at Mr. Hughes, but he only frowned upon seeing her. “Are you supposed to be out here by yourself?” he asked.

“I came to bring you home,” she said, looking up at the tall figure before her. “They are worried.”

“I’ll bet.” The crease marks on Mr. Hughes’ forehead deepened, and he looked down the slope at the view below. “Have you ever been in the valley?”

“Yes, Pa and me went hunting there.”

“Pa and I,” said Mr. Hughes. “The proper English is, ‘Pa and I.'”

“I want to be proper,” said Mary.

Mr. Hughes only sighed, and continued to look at the valley. “Tell them I’ll be along in a while. I haven’t been to the shelter yet.”

“The shelter is close by,” said Mary, moving past him and on up the mountain. “I will show you.”

From the sounds behind her, Mary knew Mr. Hughes followed. Just as she had predicted, the shelter came into view. Before she went inside, she drew her pistol.

“Why did you do that?” asked Mr. Hughes.

“Something might be in there,” said Mary, squatting down to peer inside. A quick glance, and all looked to be fine. “When you cover the entrance, leave an opening for a draft to feed the fire.”

Mr. Hughes looked at her oddly, as though she had just told him the sky were made of blue robin’s eggs.

“The fire must be fed, so the meat will dry,” Mary added, hoping the explanation would erase that look on his face.

After Mr. Hughes had done all he thought necessary, he got to his feet and stared down at Mary. “I’m going back to the cabin now. Are you coming?”

“Yes.” Mary stood, and quietly followed behind the man whose eyes were the color of a baby fawn’s.

The door opened, and Emma breathed a sigh of relief as George and Mary stepped inside. George shut the door and Mary came to Emma to be unwrapped.

“Where were you?” Will asked his trapping partner. “We were thinking you might’ve gotten lost again.”

“I wasn’t lost.” George crouched before the fire, and Josiah moved over to give him room to sit. “I just wanted to look around and see where we’re at.”

“And what’d you find?”

“Nothing– nothing but snow and mountains and rocks for as far as the eye can see.”

Will smiled. “Thought as much. Until we get back to civilization, I want you to listen to Josiah and do what he says. I’m not going to be much help to you, not with this stub of mine.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your mouth,” said George, glancing over his shoulder at Will. “You can still tell me what needs to be done.”

“Not as good as Josiah can.” Will shifted in his chair, looking a bit more comfortable than before. “I’ll do my best, George, but it won’t be much.”

A heavy sigh escaped from George as he sat cross-legged on the hides beside Josiah. George propped an elbow on one knee, and rested his chin on the palm of his hand. Altogether, he looked trapped and unhappy.

Mary dug around in the blankets behind her for something, and soon produced her Blackfoot doll. She stared at it, and then at George, as though trying to work up the courage to speak.

“Do you want to play with my doll?” asked Mary.

George looked at the outstretched Indian doll. Emma feared what the man might say, and wished she could’ve stopped Mary from making the offer. She didn’t want her daughter’s feelings to be hurt.

Frowning, George took the object and began to look it over with a casual but inquisitive eye. “It’s broken,” he said, toying a strand of sinew about the figurine’s neck.

Suddenly looking concerned for the wellbeing of her wooden friend, Mary reached for her doll but George pulled it away.

“I’m not done yet.”

“Give it back to the girl,” said Will.

George gave a mocking grin. “She said I could play with it.”

A large hand plucked the doll from George and gave it back to Mary. “She’s had enough of people treating her poorly,” said Josiah, watching Mary hug her doll and then quickly hide it beneath the covers like a precious treasure. “Them breaks you saw were made by the children in her tribe. She hasn’t been treated well by them, or by me, and I aim to make things better fer her.” Josiah turned his head, the full impact of his stare boring into George. “Hurt her in any way, and you’ll never be welcome in my lodge again.”

The warning hit its mark, and George looked fearful of being banished from the cabin. The cabin didn’t allow for much space, but with George’s knees drawn up to his chest and his arms folded over his knees, he succeeded in retreating into a lonely sulk while Will and Josiah spoke of hunting and furs.

When stomachs began to rumble, Emma served pemmican and filled the tin cup with water so everyone could have a drink. When the cup came to Mary, she took it, and a lump of food, and crawled around Josiah to the young man slumped against the wood pile.

The men were still talking buffalo, but Emma didn’t pay attention. She watched Mary quietly offer the cup to George. He stared at it a few moments, and then took it and drank. Then Mary gave him pemmican, and after a quick prayer, he began to eat.

“Almost every scrap of a buffalo’s hide and bone is used by the Indians,” Josiah was saying, “even down to the bull’s testicles. They’re good eating.”

Emma winced with dread, grateful her friends and neighbors in Indiana weren’t present to overhear Josiah. Will laughed, then grimaced when Josiah continued to relate some of the delicacies he’d eaten.

Behind Josiah, Mary sat at George’s feet to watch him eat. The girl remained there until the cup was empty, and then she went to fill it and bring it back to George.

While George ate, Mary stared at the quillwork on her moccasins, and Emma sensed Mary was working up her courage to speak to George again. She wanted to call the child back, to let the man alone before he did something that would get himself thrown from the cabin. But Emma bit her lip, and watched.

“Do you want more food?” asked Mary, her small voice barely audible over Josiah and Will’s discussion.

“No.” George set aside the cup, and leaned his head against the firewood.

Mary picked at a pebble on the floor. “Do you have a wife?”

Emma caught the flicker of surprise on George’s face.

“No, I’m not married.”

“Are you a Christian?” asked Mary. “You prayed afore you ate.”

“That’s ‘before,’ not ‘afore,'” said George. “Yes, I suppose I’m a Christian. Anyway, I was raised one, if that counts for anything.”

Mary smiled, and checked the tin cup. “Do you want more water?”

“No, I’ve had enough.” George closed both eyes, but opened one when Josiah said something that momentarily interested him. Then the eye shut, and Mary watched George doze off for an after-lunch nap.

“George, it’s time for you to check our shelter and make sure nothing’s got at the meat,” Will said, interrupting George’s sleep.

“I will go,” Mary offered, looking to Will and then to Josiah for permission.

“That’s kind of you, but…” Will looked hesitant. “Your ma might not want you to go by yourself.”

“It’s our shelter, so I’ll go,” said George, twisting to get on his snowshoes in the crowded room. “Pigtails can stay by the fire and keep warm.” George lifted his rifle, and then disappeared out the door.

“Pa, what did he mean?” asked Mary.

With a laugh, Josiah lightly pulled one of her braids. “These are pigtails. He’s right, Mary. Let him do his own work.” Josiah placed the cup in Mary’s hands, and then sent her back to Emma.

“Ma,” Mary said, kneeling on the buffalo robes beside Emma, “how old before I am married?”

The question sent a bitter-sweet dart through Emma’s heart. “Much older than you are right now. Little One, please trust me when I say he’s not the one for you.”

Mary didn’t look at all convinced. “I will marry a white man.”

“Yes, but not that white man.”

“There are only two,” Mary said, casting a glance at Will. Will was rubbing bear grease onto his face for a shave, and Mary grimaced in disgust.

“Far away from these mountains,” said Emma, drawing Mary onto her lap so she could speak quietly without anyone overhearing, “there are many, many white men who will be looking for a wife when you are older. You don’t have to pick from these two trappers. There are many others.”

“Where are they?” asked Mary.

“They are in the settlements and cities, with other white people. Some are trappers, like Mr. Hughes and Mr. Shaw, and some are in trade and keep stores.”

Mary sighed, and leaned her head against Emma’s cheek. “But I like George.”

Emma couldn’t fathom why. “Until he gives you permission to call him otherwise, it’s polite to call him ‘Mr. Hughes.’ You’re young, Mary. You’ll meet others when it’s time.”

Mary sighed, and Emma quietly wondered how she could keep such a promise. She wanted Mary to have an easier life in the city, or even reside in the country and become a farmer’s wife. Farming required much labor, but Emma considered it a better life than the one she had with Josiah.

Emma quickly corrected herself. It was no use wishing for things she couldn’t have. Her life might be set, but Mary’s wasn’t. When the time came, Emma determined to give Mary a chance to find a husband who wasn’t as wild as these mountains, someone who wore shirts made of cloth and not leather. Someone who could read and write, and do more than simple arithmetic.

And someone besides George.

By the time George returned, his mood had improved and he eventually joined the mens’ conversation.

The trappers stayed for the entire day, only leaving when daylight no longer shone through the cracks in the window shutters. Armed with weapons against the dangers of the night, Josiah took the men back to their shelter.

Will was still smiling and laughing over some old joke he’d remembered, when Josiah bade the trappers goodnight. Over the course of the day, George had warmed up to Josiah somewhat, making Josiah a little more relieved that at least they might pass the winter sociably.

Upon returning to the lodge, Josiah found Emma tucking Mary into bed. He put the bar over the door as Mary’s bedtime prayer filled his ears. Mary listed her usual requests, many of which concerned her family, but Josiah’s ears perked upon a new addition:

“Please make Mr. Hughes like us more.”

Josiah turned to watch his daughter praying with her eyes shut and her cheek cuddled against her buffalo robe. A doll’s head peered above the covers, and Josiah knew another lay hidden in her arms. It had been a curious prayer request.

He pulled off his hunting shirt and stepped onto a thick bed of hides to wait for Emma. Throughout the day, he’d sensed something from her that made him uneasy. She was missing her former life too much.

When habit made Emma check the bar over the door, it prompted a smile from Joishah. He reclined on the fur, and unfolded a blanket as Emma crossed the room to his bed.

She paused when she noticed the hunting shirt on the table.

“Thought we could frolic tonight,” he said, watching the way the firelight played with her yellow braids. She had them pinned up, but any moment now, Josiah knew she would let them down.

Completing her routine, Emma unfastened her braids, and let them fall about her shoulders. She climbed beneath his blanket, but didn’t lay against him as he wanted.

Josiah pulled her close, but she pulled away.

“Please, Josiah, not now.”

“You don’t have to frolic, but you will nestle with me, Emma.”

Her head moved against the buffalo robe, and he saw frustrated anger in her eyes.

“Don’t you ever get tired of telling me what to do, instead of asking for my opinion? Don’t you care if I agree?”

“Yer my wife.”

“All the more reason to have agreement, Josiah.”

Their voices remained low, for Mary slept and they didn’t want to disturb her.

Tossing back the blanket he had spread for privacy, Josiah sat up in his buckskin trousers and looked at Emma. He was closer to the fire, his shadow cloaking her in semi-darkness as the flames crackled behind his back.

“I ain’t wanting disagreement, Emma, but I ain’t yer pa and you ain’t yer ma. Maybe they did things different, but my decision is the only one that matters in this family.”

Emma squeezed her eyes shut.

“I know what this is all about. Yer wanting to leave, ain’t you?” When she didn’t answer, Josiah grabbed her shoulder, jarring her around until she looked at him. He saw the pain in her eyes, and immediately released his grip. “Yer mine, Emma. I ain’t giving you up.”

“Couldn’t we leave this place in the spring? Couldn’t we live close to a settlement, and find happiness there? Does it have to be in these mountains? Must we stay here for the rest of our lives?”

“This is where we belong, Emma.”

“No, this is where you belong.”

The words stuck Josiah like a knife. He felt strength leave his body, and his eyes grew hot. “I thought I was yer people.”

Emma’s breath caught in a great, silent sob. She turned into the robes and smothered her weeping. “That’s not fair, Josiah!”

“Not fair?” Josiah rubbed his face. “Yer wanting something I can’t give– how fair is that?”

“You could leave,” said Emma, raising her head to him. “You could, if you really wanted to.” Her cheeks shimmered with fresh tears, and it was more than Josiah could take. He lay beside her and enveloped her in a gentle embrace. “Please, Josiah,” Emma’s breath caressed his face, “please, leave these mountains.”

“I can’t. I’m trapped, Emma. The white man won’t have me, and after all I’ve done, neither will the Blackfoot. Yer as trapped as I am, but you don’t know it yet.” Josiah pressed his lips to her hair. “I wish to God it didn’t have to be this way.”

Emma’s grief came in choking sobs, and her face bathed his bare chest with tears.

Stroking her head, Josiah stared at the log walls. “We’ve been happy, haven’t we, Emma? You’ve told me you were happy. Tell me again.”

Weak hands pushed at his chest, until Josiah let go enough for her to breathe and gather her senses. “I’m happy,” she said, her voice struggling to remain calm, “but I’d be happier with agreement.”

“There you go again,” Josiah groaned.

“Please,” Emma touched his face and his breath caught, “I won’t ask for anything but your consideration. Consider my opinion, before you make your final decision– not only in this matter, but in others, as well.”

Josiah hesitated. It didn’t sound like an unreasonable request, though he knew deep down it might change things he wasn’t sure he wanted changed. Like putting Emma in her place, and her staying there. She didn’t often challenge him, and even now, with her face upturned and her lips moist with tears, she didn’t look rebellious. Surely, hers was a reasonable request. If he complied, he could capture that inviting mouth and cozy beneath the blankets with her to his heart’s content.

“I’ve already made my final decision about leaving, Emma.” He had to warn her.

“Couldn’t you put it off a little longer?

“What fer? Nothing will change.”

“I’m not ready to give it up, Josiah– not yet. Please, give us time to talk this out. I promise I won’t run away or leave you. I’ll abide by your decision. Only, please, don’t make it yet. I’m begging you.”

“Yer only postponing heartache fer later, Emma.”

She looked desperate. “Maybe, but I’m willing to risk it.”

A rough finger trailed the contour of her cheek, and she sighed at his touch. He could not deny her this. His mind would never be changed, but at least Emma would be happy in the thought that it might.

“I’ll consult yer opinion, but I ain’t making any more of a promise than that.” At least he had warned her. No one could say he hadn’t.

“I want us to live in agreement, Josiah.”

“I’d rather tussle in agreement,” he said smilingly, “but I’ll try to give in more often, when I think it’ll make you happy. I ain’t trying to make you cry.”

Emma kissed his fingers. “Only give in when you agree.”

Hearing this, Josiah couldn’t help but laugh. “Yer a wonder, Emma. You want it yer way, but mine, as well.”

“I want it our way.”

It was an odd thing to say, and Josiah promised himself to ponder it later. Right now, he could only think of the tender caress on his face.

Physical contact usually had a way of calming Josiah, and this night proved to be no different. Emma nestled and kissed him, until she held captive his every sense. She didn’t hold back her love, and wait for him to make good on any promises, or use herself as leverage to bend him to her will. Emma was his, and her love enveloped him with a certainty that balmed the hurts of the previous day.

Early morning nudged Josiah awake, for he instinctually sensed the approach of dawn even though he couldn’t see the sky. Sometime during the night Emma had moved from his arms, so he gently drew her back into his embrace.

Emma nuzzled him, her eyelashes brushing his skin lightly as she stirred. “Is it morning?” she asked, opening her eyes long enough to check Mary. “Couldn’t we sleep a little longer? I’m not ready to get up.”

“Emma?” Josiah peered down at her to make sure she was still awake. “Does Mary know George and I aren’t getting along too well? Does she know why?”

“I don’t know.” Unwrapping his arm from about her shoulders, Emma sat up, her face betraying deeper thought than Josiah had expected from such a simple question. “Why do you ask?”

Josiah shrugged. “I heard her mention George last night in her prayer, and wondered.”

“Do you remember Mary’s declaration to marry a white man and live among them?” asked Emma.

“Yes. What of it?”

“She’s decided, or is in the process of deciding, that George will be her husband.”

A burst of disbelieving laughter erupted from Josiah. The very thought made him laugh… until he saw the sober look on Emma’s face. “She’s only five, Emma. She can’t be serious.”

“She’s too young to be serious,” said Emma, “but it bothers me that she feels she has no choice. Mary’s only seen two white men in her entire life, and thinks she has to choose between them.”

Josiah stared at Emma, and he glimpsed a familiar question in her brown eyes. She made no request, but he could feel it all the same.

“There’s always white men at rendezvous every year,” he said quickly. “When she’s old enough to be thinking about finding a husband, she can find one there.”

Emma didn’t answer, but didn’t resist as he pulled her back into his arms.

“When it comes time, we’ll make sure she has a choice. She’ll meet as many white suitors as yer wanting.”

He could hear Emma smile.

“There’s always white men at rendezvous, so there won’t be any need to go too far.”

He figured Emma had been hoping for much more, but she kept silent.

“One thing’s fer certain, I ain’t wanting George for a son-in-law. That Indian hater ain’t a suitable match for our little Mary. Now that George feels safer and has a shelter over his head, he’s let yer being my wife sour our friendship. You should’ve seen him before, Emma. We was friends, or at least I thought we were.”

“I don’t think Mary entirely understands, Josiah, and I don’t really want her to. Not now. We’ve got to make it through the winter, and she’ll be around him. I don’t want her to fear George or Will. Did you see the look in her eyes when you admitted you had been beaten by white men?”

“I saw.” Josiah rubbed Emma’s shoulder. “It frightened her.”

“I don’t want Mary to fear them,” said Emma, looking at the small bed on the other side of the fireplace where Mary still slept. “After your warning, I don’t think George will tease her. I heard him speak to Mary, and he tried to be kind and answer her questions.”

“If he doesn’t, he won’t be seeing the inside of my lodge anytime soon.” The thought of someone mistreating Mary angered Josiah. Then he recalled the many times he had treated her without regard or affection, and it felt like salt on an open wound. “Oh, Emma! That child is sure fergiving. The very morning I asked her to fergive me for not being a father to her, she fergave me. Just like that. She didn’t even hold a grudge. I’ll make it up to her, Emma. I’ll make sure she has as many suitors as she wants. I just ain’t too sure them white men will be wanting her the way they should. They look down on Indian women, Emma; they call ’em all squaws, whether she beds a man or not.”

Emma had no answer, but he could tell it hadn’t changed her mind. The way things stood right now, Mary’s best chance at finding a Christian husband would be in the white man’s world.

After breakfast, Josiah announced he would go see how the two men up the mountain had fared through the night. Truth was, he wanted to get out of the lodge and stretch his legs. He was unused to remaining indoors for long periods of time, and even when he wintered in hide lodges, he always moved about as much as he could to prevent boredom.

It surprised no one when Mary asked to go with him. Though Emma had hoped to do some schooling, Emma had consented and now the child trailed behind him in the snow.

“Are yer feet hurting you, Mary?” Josiah slowed his pace, seeing her struggle more than usual.

Mary looked at him, her dark eyes hesitant. “No, Pa.”

“Yer lagging too far behind, so something’s wrong.” Josiah stepped across the snow to his daughter. She looked so small standing before him in her blankets. “If you was having a problem, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”

Mary didn’t answer, her stoic face giving him concern.

“Yer my daughter, and when you need something, I’ll do my best to provide it. Do you understand?”

Mary nodded “yes,” though she remained quietly pensive.

“Do yer feet hurt, Mary?”

No response.

“Sit down on that rock,” said Josiah, guiding her to a snow covered stone; he brushed it clear, then lifted Mary onto its rugged surface. Strips of cloth kept her from losing her moccasins in the snow, and Josiah undid one foot to see if he could find anything wrong. Inside her tiny moccasins, Josiah discovered Mary’s foot constricted by the leather. “These are too small fer you. You’ve outgrown them.” He looked at Mary. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Mary brushed a small hand across her nose and sniffed. “I do not want to go back to the village.”

“Who said you were?”

“If I make work for you, you will send me back?”

Mary gazed at him fearfully, and Josiah suddenly realized he had never given Mary any assurances that her stay with him would be permanent.

Josiah cupped her chin in his large hand. “Yer staying with me, even if I have to fashion you a pair of moccasins every new moon. I haven’t done right by you in the past, but God help me if I haven’t changed. When yer hurting, I want to know. When yer needing something, don’t be fearful to tell me or yer ma.”

Mary bit her lip, a habit she must’ve picked up from Emma, for Emma sometimes did that when a request was coming.

“What is it, Mary?”

“I would like snowshoes,” she said in a quiet voice. “Is it too much work?”

“No, not if it’s fer you,” said Josiah, scooping up his daughter and letting her stay in his arms above the snow. She hugged him about the neck, her face sweet with a wide grin. All those years of staying away and not taking responsibility for this child were forever lost. He hadn’t been there for her as a baby, or caught her when she took her first steps.

But Josiah knew the future would be different. Whatever came, he would be there for Mary.

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Chapter 17 – Books, Teachers, and other Unnecessary Things 

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