Don’t forgot to read – The Parting : Chapter 19
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The wind awakened Josiah with a loud shrill that filled his ears until they hurt. He slanted his face into the wind, crouched even more into the robe, and waited. At least it didn’t snow, he had that working in his favor.
Days had passed since he’d left, days without seeing another human. He figured the Blackfoot were still well ahead of him, so he didn’t expect to find anyone soon. Still, those handful of days had been lonely for Josiah. In the past, he’d been able to endure such solitude relatively well, but that had been before Emma. Before he’d rooted himself to her presence. Now solitude only served to remind him of what he was missing. The vast expanse of wilderness felt emptier than it ever had, and Josiah knew it was because she wasn’t there. He had prized his freedom in the past, but after this absence, freedom no longer seemed as important. He wanted Emma. He wanted to be home, with her, with Mary.
Growing weary of the constant howl, Josiah moved to his feet. The wind wasn’t letting up, and he needed to get going. The sooner he found the Blackfoot, the sooner he could start for home.
George checked his rifle, going through the same movements he had seen Josiah do so many times before. Powder, flint, shot. And the robe. Don’t forget the buffalo robe. He cleaned his knife, replaced it into its scabbard in his boot.
“Wish I was coming with you,” said Will, his voice trailing off in a heavy sigh.
“I can manage,” said George, double checking himself one more time. He felt as though he’d forgotten something, but couldn’t tell what.
“There’s no need for you to go hunting so soon,” said Will, once more trying to dissuade George from his purpose. “We’ve still got deer meat left.”
George grinned. “You aren’t worrying about me, are you, Will?”
Will’s bearded chin shot up a few inches, and his eyes deepened with reproach. “No, I’m not worrying. It’s only that you’re so green, I can’t help but feel a little pity for something as helpless as you.”
“I know what I’m doing,” said George, his voice level with confidence he didn’t exactly feel. “Are you sure you don’t want me to help you to the Browns’ cabin? I probably won’t be back until sundown.”
“It isn’t safe for you to be out so long,” said Will, his voice filling with worry once more. “I know Josiah said to keep hunting, but–“
“It’s no use, Will, I’m going. If we run out of food, it’ll be my fault.” George secured the sash on his capote. “Do you want to stay with the Browns while I’m gone, or not?”
A bright, blustery day greeted George and Will as they started down the mountain. Will was in a worrying mood, one that made George anxious to be out and about. It was hard to be cooped up in a small shelter with a worrier. His worrying started to make him worry, and George decided that didn’t do either of them any good. Better to hunt, and try to be useful; and better to keep those thoughts to himself, rather than remind Will of what he could no longer do.
It took only one knock on the split log door for someone to let them inside. That someone was Mary, his small pupil who always seemed glad to see him, even if his arrival meant more homework.
George helped Will to the table.
“Mrs. Brown,” said Will, easing himself into a chair, “I hope you can talk some sense into this fool knucklehead of ours. He’s planning to be gone the entire day. Going hunting, he says.”
“Is it all right if I leave him here until I get back?” George looked to Mrs. Brown for permission.
“I am coming,” said Mary.
“I could be late, Mrs. Brown. If Will’s going to get in your way, I can take him back now.”
“Oh, no you won’t.” Will glared at George. “I’m not getting stuck in that shelter by myself all day long.”
“You’re perfectly welcome to stay, Mr. Shaw,” said their hostess. “With Josiah away, I’m grateful for the company.”
As George started for the door, he noticed Mary, bundled in her winter blankets, pistol jabbed into her belt.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked her.
“I’m coming with you.”
“No, you’re not. Turn around, take off those blankets, and stay with your ma and Will.”
Mary folded her arms. “I am coming.”
“No, you are not.” George could feel himself grow frustrated. He could easily refer to Mrs. Brown for help, but he felt his own authority was being questioned. And by a little girl. “I’m only going to say this once more, Mary. Stay here.”
Mary sighed. She turned, looked to Mrs. Brown. “Ma, George says I can’t come.”
“Then I guess you’ll have to stay.” Mrs. Brown didn’t look as though she wanted Mary to come, and it bolstered George. Mary could be quite determined, when she set her mind to something.
“I’ll see you later,” smiled George. He opened the door, turned to shut it and saw Mary’s disappointed face. “Do your homework,” he told her.
“I already have.”
“Then do it again.”
“You will need my help.”
“I’m not arguing with a five-year old. Homework. Now.” When she started to pout, George shut the door. A man had to show who was boss, put his foot down once in a while to make it clear.
He had taken about four steps away from the cabin, when the door opened.
“Mr. Hughes?” Mrs. Brown called him back. “Are you quite sure you won’t take Mary? As much as I don’t like her leaving the safety of this cabin, she was born to these mountains and you were not.”
George’s pride deflated a bit. “I’m sure, Mrs. Brown.”
“You will make sure not to go too far, won’t you?”
He couldn’t help the scowl he was sure he gave. “Good day, Mrs. Brown.”
“Good day, then.” The doubt in her voice only made George more determined than ever. He wended his way through the trees, and started toward the valley below when he caught the sound of a girl’s voice, smothered by the wind but still distinguishable.
He looked behind him, saw Mary in her snowshoes, waving something over her head as she hurried to meet him.
“I thought I told you to stay inside.”
Her breath came in quick huffs, and when she caught up to him, she had to double over to regain her voice.
“You fergot something, George.”
“If you’re going to speak, use proper English.”
“I asked Mr. Shaw what you took, and he said he couldn’t remember if you had any food.” She held out a small leather bag. “You can take my jerky.”
A quick check of his pockets confirmed Mary’s suspicion. He eyed the bag warily. He knew he’d forgotten something.
Reluctantly, George took the bag, tucked it into his belt. “Does this mean I have to take you with me?”
Mary bit her lip hopefully. “Ma said I could come.”
He had lost, and knew it. “Very well, if you’re coming, then come. But when I tell you to do something, I don’t want any argument. I’m still your teacher, whether we’re in school or not. Understood?”
“Yes.” But Mary was too busy checking her pistol to pay much attention to him. She sniffed the air, examined the clouds, made certain of the ties on her snowshoes.
The decision wasn’t hers, George never having given it to her to make in the first place; but he could tell the look of surprise that filled her face when he informed her they were going into the valley. He would brook no opposition, and to his satisfaction, Mary didn’t give any. She simply followed.
Over the hours, his quick strides had to be shortened, for Mary couldn’t keep up otherwise. He expected her to ask to be taken back to the cabin, and marveled when the request never came. She didn’t even look tired. On the contrary, she seemed perfectly happy. Happy to be there, happy to be in their untamed surroundings.
As much as George tried to tell himself he felt the same, he couldn’t quite work up the enthusiasm. His feet were cold, though he thought not dangerously so, and his face had numbed to the chill. When he stopped to look about, Mary took off her snowshoes, climbed onto a rock to bring herself to his height.
“What are you doing?” he asked, as she adjusted his scarf to cover his mouth and cheeks.
She shook her head, looked at him as though he should know better. “You are turning red.”
“I’m warm enough,” he said, but let her finish securing the top of his capote.
She hopped down, and he waited while she retied her snowshoes. The warmth of the scarf slowly brought feeling back to his face.
“Do you want to make a fire?” asked Mary.
“Only if you need a break from the cold,” said George. He shifted the heavy rifle in his arms. “Are you tired yet? No? Then let’s keep going.”
It had to be far past noon, for George’s belly began to growl so loudly even Mary noticed. Her eyes widened, and to his consternation, she giggled each time.
“I think this is a good place to stop and have lunch,” said George, deciding on the meager shelter of a large rock to shield them from wind. He pulled out the buffalo robe folded into the back of his capote, glad to be rid of the hunch for a while. The robe unfurled onto the snow, George took off his snowshoes so he could sit without encumbrance. The novelty of moving about on snowshoes had long ago worn off. He no longer found it enjoyable to have to wear them everywhere he went, even to relieve himself.
Mary didn’t follow his example, but hunted for firewood instead. He would have gotten up to help, but his feet felt heavy, his legs weary. He pulled at the small leather bag, opened it, ate only a portion to save plenty for Mary. Then he lay down, covered himself partially with the robe, and fell asleep.
The warm hearth comforted Emma, though her heart didn’t rest easy as she ate lunch. Josiah was out in that cold, and now so was Mary. She had let the girl leave with George, knowing George would likely need Mary’s help.
A cough shook Emma.
Will looked up from watching the door, his face creased with worry.
“You feeling all right, Mrs. Brown?”
Emma tried to shake off his excess concern. Her visitor was welcome, but the worry he’d brought with him had a tendency to spill onto her if she wasn’t careful.
“Yes, Mr. Shaw, I’m fine. Are you certain you don’t want any sewing? It would give you something to do.”
Will grimaced. “Sewing is women’s work. I never do it, unless there’s a real need.”
Sighing, Emma stopped making the suggestion. She had thought the tear in the knee of his trousers was a real need, but he didn’t seem to think so. She tried to busy herself with work, keeping her mind occupied with prayer and not worry.
She didn’t like her family being in so many different places at once, and prayed she had done the right thing in letting Mary go with George. Survival called upon every resource, even the very young. A howl of wind blasted against the log walls, renewing Emma’s prayers for her family.
Darkness clouded George’s mind. Something had changed. Something was different, but what? The wind. It had stopped, leaving eerie silence in its wake. He would have welcomed the peace before, but now, it seemed unnatural.
Alarm hit George like a bolt of lightning. Mary! Where was she? He had drifted to sleep, leaving the girl unattended.
He grasped the robe, shoved it back, only to find Mary sitting beside him on the large buffalo hide. Relief flooded him, and he dropped back with a loud groan.
“You must be very tired, George. I thought you wanted to go hunting.”
“I fell asleep…” he rubbed his face, tried to shake himself from the haze of inactivity. “What smells so good?” He raised his head, saw the fire, and the meat cooking on a flat rock Mary had placed beside the flames.
“I caught a rabbit in my snare. Do you want some?” Mary cut a piece from the carcass, offered it to him.
“You were setting snares while I slept?” George sat up, grateful for the hot meal, though surprised it had come from a girl. “Hmmm,” George tasted the meat and smiled. It was heavenly. He didn’t even miss the lack of salt. Hunger had seasoned it to perfection.
“It will be night soon,” said Mary.
It was then George realized he had slept the day away. Early evening tinted the clouds, huing them with soft pinks and yellows.
“Why didn’t you wake me, Mary?” He ran a hand through his hair, cast his eyes about the land– though for what, he wasn’t certain. He only knew night would soon descend, and plunge these mountains into inky darkness.
A small, consoling hand lightly touched his. “Don’t be afeared, George. We can go home in the morning.”
“But… if it snows…” George groaned. He had been counting on following their tracks back to the cabin. Night and snow would obliterate them from sight. He was lost. Sadly, miserably, lost.
A tug on his hand made him look at Mary. “What?”
“Do you see that?” she asked, pointing to the flatted crown of a mountain. In the setting sun, he could see it easily. “That will guide us home,” said Mary, turning back to the cooking rabbit.
Greatly relieved and yet greatly annoyed, George frowned. “What makes you think I need a mountain to find our way back?”
Mary looked at him simply, her childish intuition too perceptive to be so easily thwarted. “You were not lost, George?”
“Not yet, I wasn’t.” He accepted more rabbit, and found himself smiling in defeat. “I guess it was good you came, after all.” One look at the gathering darkness, though, had him again worried. “We should build a shelter for the night. Do you know how your pa constructs them?” George’s pride stung, for he had just consulted a child.
And not over something trivial.
“They aren’t back yet.” Will took another bite of dried meat, shifted on the buffalo robe Mary used for her bed. “I don’t like this, Mrs. Brown. Not one bit. George and Mary should’ve been back by now.”
It wasn’t easy for Emma to agree, for she knew it would only feed Will’s concern. “They were probably forced to make camp for the night,” she said, placing the bar over the door. “You said Mr. Hughes intended to hunt in the valley. That’s a fair distance, especially when you’re keeping a slower pace because a child is along.”
Will looked at her. “Sorry you let Mary go?”
Emma prepared her buffalo robes for bed. “Mary may be young, Mr. Shaw, but she knows considerably more than I in matters of survival. Mr. Hughes will need her advice. I’m sure of it.”
“You aren’t afraid for her safety?”
“Mr. Hughes will look after her.”
Will chuckled, leaned back on an elbow and stared into the fire. “You’re a strong woman, Mrs. Brown. I admire that in a female.”
“Thank you, Mr. Shaw, that’s good to know. Are you sure you have enough bedding to make yourself comfortable for the night?”
“I’ll make do with this, thank you, ma’am.”
With a tired sigh, Emma lay down. All this mistering, reminded her of her early days with Josiah.
Josiah. Please, God, protect him. Protect Mary, protect George. Bring them all safely home. Her soul filled with prayer, then rested as sleep closed her eyes.
The small lean-to didn’t look like much, with wood tied together at the ends and propped up to form an upside down V, but it was shelter. George felt rather pleased with its construction. They had worked hard to find dead wood, low hanging branches– anything that might be useful to help insulate them from the cold.
He crawled inside the long shelter, spread the buffalo robe over the tree boughs covering the floor. Mary hunched at the opposite entrance, her face tired.
“Climb in, but first, give me your pistol. I don’t like the thought of waking up wounded because it accidentally went off in your sleep.”
With a grin, Mary handed it over and went inside. She took off her blanket wraps, and using them, covered herself on the buffalo robe.
He had considered taking turns sleeping, so someone could guard the camp during the night, but decided against it. Mary was exhausted, and needed all the rest she could get. And with the buffalo robe in the lean-to, he had nothing but his capote and the fire to keep him warm.
After placing as much wood on the fire as he dared, George crawled into the shelter. He had heard of Josiah’s stories of enemy using a night fire to find their prey, but felt he had no choice. They needed the warmth.
Using the remaining side of his buffalo robe, George pulled it over his shoulder. Mary lay at his side, wrapped in blankets. He heard her yawn.
George hefted his rifle in between him and Mary, so he could easily grab the weapon in case of trouble. He would stay awake for as long as he could, then sleep.
The crackle of fire, the sound of the light breeze, occupied him for several moments.
“Aren’t you asleep yet?” he asked.
She propped herself on an elbow, looked at him seriously. “Would you wait for me, until I’m grown enough to marry you?”
“What? Go to sleep.”
“Would you?” she asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Lay back down and sleep.”
He thought she had obeyed, when she asked yet another question.
“What now?” he groaned.
“You have all the blankets.”
“But I’m still cold.”
He tugged up the buffalo robe on her side, draped it over the small huddled form. “Is that better?”
“Yes.” Mary cozied into the robe. “George?”
“I wish you’d go to sleep. I’m keeping guard so you don’t have to.”
With a sigh of contentment, she shut her eyes. “I’m glad we’re friends, George.”
The simplicity of the statement made him smile. “I’m glad, too, Mary. Now quiet down and try to rest.” He tucked the blanket under her chin, moved the robe to cover her ears.
She yawned again, and before long, he heard the soft rhythmic sounds of slumber.
Late into the night, he watched Mary sleep. The youngest of five children, George had been the baby of the family. As a youngster, his sisters doted on him, his brothers favored him. He was the family favorite, always being taken care of, always pampered, even by his aunt. Responsibility had never been his, and he’d never sought it out. Yet here he was, alone in the wilderness with a little girl who needed his protection.
He checked Mary, made certain her feet didn’t stick out the other end and freeze.
With a tired yawn, George finally let himself nod off. For once in his life, he felt like a big brother.
When Emma saw the whitened morning sky, her heart sank. She hoped the newly fallen snow wouldn’t hide tracks that George needed to use to find his way home. She reminded herself that such a tactic would be something she herself would have employed, but not Mary. Mary would give George direction, of that Emma was confident.
The meal of dried meat eaten, the bar taken from the door, Emma tried to settle into her normal routine of keeping house. Without Mary, though, the routine felt terribly empty, as did the cabin.
Seated at the table, Will drummed his fingers and waited, puffing out exasperated, anxious sighs. “I bet you never figured on being a trapper’s wife,” he said finally, his head cocked in her direction. “Let alone, being here,” he swept his hand across the room, “here in this place, waiting for a little Blackfoot girl you call daughter. Strange the way life works out sometimes, isn’t it?”
There had been no contempt in his voice, so Emma took no offense. She turned the page of the Bible on her lap, looked up at him and smiled in agreement. “Yes, life can be very surprising.” She resumed her reading.
Fingers tapped the tabletop, worried sighs repeated themselves until Emma became so distracted, she could take it no more and closed the Bible. She had offered to read out loud, but he had politely turned her down.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Brown,” he said, suddenly becoming still, “I’m not disturbing you, am I?”
It would have been discourteous to answer bluntly, so Emma set aside the Bible, put on her best smile. “I can read later. Right now, I need to leave and fetch some water.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mrs. Brown.” Will looked at his leg, as though wishing he could sprout a new limb by just willing it into being. “There’s no one to escort you to the spring.”
“I can manage by myself,” said Emma, gathering her shotgun and capote. She didn’t want to say it, but she looked forward to escaping the cabin, away from Will’s fretting. Her husband and daughter already consumed her thoughts, and Will only made it worse.
“Things can get dangerous in a hurry, Mrs. Brown. I wish you’d wait for George and Mary.”
Emma took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. “Please, Mr. Shaw, I’d like you to call me Emma. Since we have to get through all this together, it feels rather silly for you to keep calling me Mrs. Brown.”
A twinkle of merriment flashed in those sky blue eyes, and he smiled. “Only if you’ll call me Will.”
“Very well.” Emma returned his smile. “I’ll be back shortly, Will.”
“You won’t take my words into consideration?” He looked at her, hurt, though not so hurt he didn’t smile. “Do you need the water right now? It seems to me to be an unnecessary risk, Mrs. Bro– Emma,” he finished with a laughing shake of his head. The smile faded a little, and she could see worry line his face. “If something happened to you, I’d never forgive myself. I wish you’d wait for George and Mary to return.”
The promise of not taking unnecessary risks had been extracted from Josiah, before he left, and she couldn’t deny the wisdom in Will’s advice. Disappointedly, she laid aside the capote.
“We really do need more water, but I suppose it can wait. For now, at least.” She returned to the hearth, laid more wood on the flames.
“Thank you, Emma.”
She looked at him over her shoulder, smiled when he did. “It’s not always easy for me to remain inside, when I know my family is out there, doing things. Dangerous things I can’t help them with. All I can do is pray and have faith, weak as it is.” She sighed, sat down on the robes and took out her sewing.
“Can’t say I’m much of a praying man, myself. I reckon God is catching up to me, though.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him massage the folded-over leg of his trousers, the one covering his stump. “I believe I’m about done running from Him. Reckon it’s too late, ma’am?”
Emma looked at him with raised brows.
“I mean, Emma,” he smiled.
“I don’t like to think it’s too late for anyone, Will.” She hemmed a few stitches, paused when she sensed him watching.
“Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable by staring,” he said, shaking his head with a sigh. “You’ve been putting me to shame, Emma, with all your composure and praying. I’ve been worrying, and all I got out there is George; you’ve got Josiah and Mary. Wish I had your faith. I really do.”
“I don’t deserve such praise,” said Emma. “I’ve had my share of worries, and if you could ask God face to face, he’d tell you I haven’t given Him a moment’s rest this morning.”
“Don’t you give it any more thought, Emma.” Will nodded to her adamantly. “They’ll be home before you know it. Safe and healthy, and right as rain. You just see.”
Emma smiled, picked up where she left off in her sewing. She prayed for Will, for George, and then pestered Heaven once more about her family.
She had just fallen into the rhythm of her work, when movement outside the door caught her attention.
“I hear something,” Will muttered, his hand automatically reaching for the shotgun he had leaned against his chair.
Emma moved to the door, waited to see what she could hear.
“It’s probably George and Mary,” said Will, raising his weapon, “but we’d better be careful. Ho! outside!” he shouted. “Who are you, and what do you want?”
“It’s us,” said a familiar voice. “Open up, would you? My arms are tired.”
“That’s George all right.” Will smiled hugely. He dropped his rile as Emma pulled at the heavy log door.
“It sure is colder here, than in the valley,” said Will, moving inside with Mary under one arm and his heavy rifle under the other. He set her down, brushed the snow from her blankets, then looked at Emma in apology. “I’m afraid I’ve given you a hard night of worrying. Mary is perfectly fine, though I fear she might’ve twisted her ankle this morning, chasing after a rabbit.”
“I’m all right, Ma,” said Mary, as Emma knelt to look her over. “George carried me, but I ain’t hurt.”
George shot her a look, and Mary sighed.
“I’m not hurt,” she corrected, though she sounded somewhat defiant. “I’m not, Ma. See?” Mary moved about, but Emma could see the wince on the girl’s face and immediately made her sit.
Will easily leaned back in his chair as George fell into the remaining split-bottom chair at the table. The young man unfastened his snowshoes, took the buffalo robe from his capote.
“I take it you didn’t find any meat,” said Will.
“No, I didn’t see a thing. Only rabbits.” George pulled off his boots. “Mary managed to snare one, so we had a hot meal last night. But that was it.”
“Hunting isn’t easy, is it.” Humor highlighted Will’s face, surprising both Emma and George.
“You’re looking very happy,” said George, “considering we might starve if I don’t find more food.” George turned to Mary. “I’m not trying to frighten you, Mary, or you either, Mrs. Brown. We have plenty for now. But I see wisdom in going out every day. “
“I am coming with you,” said Mary.
Emma waited for George to protest, but he didn’t. He only nodded in agreement and shrugged off his capote.
“I nearly got lost, with all that fresh snow covering my tracks home,” said George, disgust lacing his voice. “If it hadn’t been for Mary, I’d still be out there, trying to find my bearings.”
“You’d be dead, all right,” chuckled Will, leaning over to set aside his shotgun. When he straightened, George frowned at him.
“It seems to me, you’re taking a little too much delight in my failings,” said George, in an uncharacteristic show of self-defense. “These Rockies are dangerous. Mary and I could have been killed.”
“But you weren’t,” said Will, “and for that, I thank God.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t hear any thanksgiving when I returned,” said George, “just laughter.”
Taking the pistol from Mary’s belt, Emma unbundled Mary one blanket at a time. “Did you stay warm last night?”
“Yes, Ma. George and I built a shelter.”
“Good. That’s good.” Emma sucked in a breath of relief, thanked God for her answer to prayer. George had taken good care of Mary. She didn’t look hungry or cold, and was in fairly high spirits for one who had returned empty-handed– save for a single white rabbit skin.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” asked Emma, when Mary postured to stand. “You’re going to rest that ankle.”
“But, Ma, I need to check my snares.”
“I’ll do that,” said George. “You be still like your ma says.”
Mary folded her arms. “I don’t want to be still.”
“I don’t care what you want, you’ll stay put.” George tugged his capote back on, gave Emma a weary smile. “Would you like an escort to the spring, Mrs. Brown? From the empty water bucket, I see you waited for me.”
“Yes, thank you.” Emma got to her feet, retrieved her coat from a peg on the wall. She checked her shotgun, while Mary looked imploringly at her to come. “Haven’t you had enough excitement for one day?” Emma asked her.
Mary beckoned her to come close, spoke softly so the others couldn’t hear. “George gets lost awfully easy, Ma.”
“Don’t worry,” Emma said, patting Mary’s hand, “I’ll look after him.”
Armed with weaponry and soft armor against the cold, George and Emma braved the outdoors once more for water, the bounty in Mary’s rabbit snares, and wood for the fire.
Winter was refusing to let go, Josiah decided, as he tramped across the patches of snow in his moccasins. It was spring, though very early on in the season, for snow fell sporadically, followed by warmth. By Josiah’s calculations, half a month had passed since he’d left the lodge, and he still hadn’t seen any signs of the Blackfoot.
The afternoon grew long, forcing Josiah to stop and make camp. A fire burned brightly as he warmed himself and ate the bird he had caught. Tree boughs on the snow and dirt, covered with a buffalo robe, would serve to keep his body from direct contact with the still frozen ground. He wrapped himself in the second robe, then put out the fire. He was getting too close to the Blackfoot– he could sense it– and didn’t want the alert of a night fire to lead them to him unawares.
In the bitter cold, beneath a darkening sky, Josiah hunkered in his robe. He lay down on his side, hugged his arms about his rifle. Eyes closed, he remembered his last embrace with Emma, the softness of her kiss, the caress of her hands. He grew feverish at the memory, and had to get his mind on something else.
Josiah didn’t remember falling asleep, but when he awoke suddenly, the sky was just turning to morning. Every limb, every muscle remained completely still. The noise that had awakened him came again, this time to fully awake ears and an alert mind.
Dropping his head, Josiah checked the flintlock’s priming. There it came again– the low nicker of a horse. This deep into Blackfoot territory, that horse would likely have an owner. His eyes flicked across the landscape, but he saw no one, not even the horse.
Careful to not make any noise on the boughs, Josiah tugged off his robe. He folded his hides, packed his few belongings onto his back, then stealthily followed the direction of the sounds.
Josiah stopped in his tracks when the rocks and trees thinned before him, allowing an unobstructed view of what lay beyond. Smoke drifted into the heavens from tall, coned shaped lodges, their outer walls covered with brightly painted decorations. Women sat outside, scraping skins, their voices carrying faintly on the wind of their husbands’ successful hunts. Heart pounding, Josiah scanned the lodges, his eyes coming to rest on one in particular.
Nearby, horses had been hobbled to keep them from wandering during the night. Josiah immediately backed away, concealed himself when a broad shouldered man came to release the ponies so they could graze the patchy ground. In low, gentle tones, the man patted the animals, spoke to them in friendly words.
Friendly Blackfoot words.
Josiah had found the Blackfoot, but more importantly, he had found his mother’s village. They looked to be several dozen strong, well armed and well fed. He rested his rifle harmlessly in the crook of his arm, took a deep breath.
And stepped forward to let himself be seen.