Don’t forgot to read – The Big Decision : Chapter 25


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To keep themselves concealed as much as possible, it had been necessary to keep quiet, and for that reason Emma and Josiah said very little to each other as they moved further into the Yellowstone. As far as Emma could guess, they had yet to be discovered, and when she pressed the question to Josiah, he would only shrug and say that he didn’t know.

Days slipped by, and as they moved further and further away from his friends, Josiah remained quiet long after it was no longer necessary. He rode ahead of her, so that she could do little else but stare at his buckskin clad back and observe him in silence. Over the many months of their being together, his buckskins had grown dark with the grease of buffalo fat, and from the passage of time itself. They no longer carried the fringe she had admired when they’d first met, when she had been slung over his shoulder as a new bride, and could do nothing but watch his backside and the leather fringe that danced as he hauled her to their camp. But that fringe was gone, cut from his clothing to soothe his hunger when the buffalo and deer had been scarce. They had been through much, and his deerskin clothing betrayed it.

The memory of food caused Emma to pull some pemmican from the small bag at her belt. Cora had made sure they came well prepared, that there would be no want for food during their journey. The smell must have gotten somehow to Josiah, for he reined in his horse long enough to jam his large paw into Emma’s bag and retrieve some for himself.

“Will we stop for lunch?” she asked. Ever since they had spotted Josiah’s friends, they had eaten while on the backs of their horses, only stopping for nightfall and when it was necessary to rest the animals.

“We keep going,” said Josiah, turning his horse about to resume their pace. “It won’t be long now.”

Emma gave a start when she heard this, at first thinking he had meant his friends would soon discover them. Then she realized he had referred to rejoining the rest of their family, and quieted herself without Josiah ever knowing he had frightened her.

When at last they neared their old campsite, Josiah had no need to tell her they were home. Emma heard a girl’s war whoop, and immediately knew it was Mary. The child ran out to meet them, the first to spot them, and the first to greet them.

Mary had to wait until Josiah had helped Emma down from her horse, before the girl could fly into Emma’s arms for a hug.

“Don’t I git one, too?” asked Josiah. He grinned broadly as Mary gave him a hug of his own.

Mary beamed excitedly. “We sure missed you, Pa, and so did Will. He said if you didn’t get back real soon, he and Great-Grandpap were going to come looking for you.”

Josiah squinted a playful look at Mary. “He did, did he?”

Mary nodded. “George said he’d go with them, but Will said someone had to stay and look after the women and it might as well be him. George didn’t like that too much.”

“No, I don’t suppose he did,” said Josiah, pulling at the bridles of the three ponies he led. “Is everyone all right? Did you see anyone while we were gone?”

“No, Pa.” Mary happily hugged Emma’s arm as they walked into camp, oblivious of the reasoning behind Josiah’s last question.

“Good to see you!” Will limped toward them as fast as his stump could move. He shook Josiah’s hand, smiled quickly and then sighed in relief. “I was getting a mite worried. Thought maybe you ran into some trouble.”

“We hurried as fast as we could,” said Josiah, casting a glance in Emma’s direction.

For all her efforts not to, Emma knew she had slowed Josiah down and was thankful when he made no further mention of it to Will.

“I have some news–” Josiah was cut off by the “hello” of George, who stepped forward with his shirt untucked and flapping in the breeze; he looked as though he had just gotten up from a nap.

“Did you have a safe journey?” asked the young man, reaching to shake Josiah’s hand even before it was offered. “Did you run into any trouble? Grandpap said he thought he saw some Blackfoot a few days ago, but couldn’t be sure.”

Will grunted. “They were very far away, and in spite of what Grandpap says, his eyes are very old. They could’ve been anyone.”

“Mary said you saw no one,” said Josiah. Emma could hear the strain immediately return to his voice. “Did they see you?”

“We didn’t want to worry the child,” said George, ignoring the pout on Mary’s face, “so we kept it to ourselves in case it meant trouble. But they kept moving, and didn’t seem to notice us so we didn’t worry about ourselves. Will was concerned for you and Mrs. Brown, though.”

“We’re all right,” said Josiah, turning to nod to Cora. “Did you see them, Ma? Were they Blackfoot, or something else?”

“I did not see them,” said Cora.

“What’s this news you have to tell us?” asked Will, as Grandpap came to greet Josiah. “I got an uneasy feeling you know something we don’t, and that it isn’t exactly good.”

This prompted a double-take from Josiah.

“I know you well enough,” said Will, grinning a half smile, “to know when’s something’s sitting on your shoulders like a bag of rocks. By the look on your face just now, I’d say you’re toting a lot of them. Now what do you know that we don’t?”

“Mary,” Josiah patted the girl’s head, “go gather more firewood.”

“Aw, Pa!” Mary kicked at the ground with the toe of her moccasin. “Can’t I stay and hear? Can’t I?”

If Josiah had wanted to, he could have made Mary leave; but with that sweet pleading look in Mary’s eyes, Emma knew Josiah wouldn’t. He gave Emma a helpless glance that hinted of a smile. “I reckon you can stay,” he told Mary, and then went to tie the ponies to a nearby tree before talking. “I noticed no one asked if we found the gold coins,” he said over his shoulder.

A grin parted Will’s mouth until his teeth showed. “Did you get them?”

“We did,” Josiah answered with a grin of his own. He strode back to the group, folded his arms and let the grin slip from his face until he looked quite sober. “The thing is, Emma and I saw some free trappers as we were heading back into the Yellowstone.”

“I see,” said Will, first staring at the ground and then at Josiah with a knowing look. “Would these be ones you’d call friends, or enemies?”

“I don’t know how to rightly answer that,” said Josiah. “Some of both, I reckon.”

“Did they see you?”

Josiah let out a deep harrumph. “With all that gold tied to my pony, and no where to hide it? I ain’t a fool.”

“Never said you were,” said Will, looking at the others with a very thoughtful face. “Do you reckon they’ll be coming this way?”

“No,” Josiah shook his head with a certainty Emma didn’t share. “It’s too close to rendezvous, so they’ll be heading for the Siskadee real soon.”

“The what?” asked George.

“The Green River,” said Josiah. “We’ll be going that way ourselves, come morning.”

It made sense to Emma, now that she heard Josiah’s reasoning. The idea of going to the same place as those wild men, however, didn’t make her feel like smiling when Josiah looked at her with those dark eyes of his.

“You knew we were going to meet up with them sooner or later, Em.”

“I know.” She gave Josiah the smile she knew he needed, and then went into Cora’s hide lodge to lay down and rest her sore back. Sitting a horse had a way of making her sore all over, but it hurt her back especially.

Through the walls of the lodge, Emma could still hear Josiah. “When we meet up with my friends, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention the gold. Some things are better left unsaid.”

“I understand,” said Will. “You can count on George and me to keep our mouths shut. Isn’t that right, George?”

“Yes, of course,” said George. “Do you expect trouble, Josiah?”

“What do you think?” Will asked promptly. “Sometimes, George, I worry about you.”

“I only wondered,” said George.

“Still a greenhorn,” Will said with a weary chuckle. Emma imagined he directed the comment to Josiah, for he added, “All this time in the Rockies, and he still doesn’t know any better.”

“He’s man enough,” Josiah said with a smile in his voice. “I’d trust him with my life, any day of the week.”

There was quiet, and Emma didn’t have to be present to know George wore a big grin.

When the men continued talking, Emma didn’t pay attention. She kept thinking and praying, until her eyes grew heavy and she fell into some much needed sleep.

Before sunup, Josiah had everyone packed, mounted and on their way South, back through the Yellowstone one last time on their way to rendezvous. From what George understood, a Rocky Mountain rendezvous was a kind of fair in the wilderness, for there people could find all manner of trade goods and amusements that weren’t as readily available elsewhere. This was the event the mountain men looked forward to all year long, the one time they could kick up their heels and have some fun and not be fearful of losing their scalp. According to Josiah, at rendezvous, many Indian tribes who were usually hostile to one another, came together to trade at this event, and for the most part, have a good time, themselves.

Upon hearing Josiah’s few remarks about where they were headed, George was thankful the coin box lay hidden in Cora’s travois, deep in the folds of the hide lodge where no one could see it. The Brown family would need that money to start life elsewhere, and George and Will had together determined to make sure no one would steal their gold.

Despite George’s protests that he was strong enough to travel on foot, Josiah gave his horse to him and insisted that he ride. George felt somewhat better when Josiah lifted Mary up on the horse with him; at least he could do something useful, besides deprive Josiah of his mount.

Even in the semi-darkness of early dawn, George could see the eager excitement in Mary’s eyes, hear it in her voice as she told him she could hardly wait until they reached the Siskadee. It would be her first rendezvous, and most likely her last. Mary was so young– just a small child– and she had so much to learn about the world she would be entering. George wished he could share in her unreserved excitement, for he had never been to a rendezvous, either. But whenever he thought of Josiah and Emma, and Grandpap and Cora, his heart beat slower and his thoughts grew heavy. He wished he could spare Mary the knowledge of the world around her, preserve her childish innocence by stopping her ears whenever an unkind word was spoken against her.

These thoughts were followed by pangs of guilt. Not so very long ago, George could have been one of her tormenters– though that was not the way his prejudice usually worked. He preferred to be friendly, even to those beneath his notice. Even to a half-breed who had dug him from the snow, warmed him, given him hope when all hope had been lost. But George had found that it was one thing to be friendly, and another to actually mean it. To mean it with every fiber in his being, with every breath he took and then released back to the sky.

These people were his friends, but especially Josiah.

George smiled as Mary tried to get the reins from him, to coax the horse to move faster.

There was one more logical step George needed to make, and he knew it quite well. If Josiah and Mary were his equals– no less human than himself– then that would also have to be true of everyone else. “‘All men are born free and equal,'” would logically have to be true, giving new meaning to “‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.'” It was all fine and good for the Massachusetts Constitution and the Bible to say, but in practice, it was a difficult thing for a Virginian born on a cotton plantation to accept. Especially when that Virginian thought about his father.

It was hard to accept, but not impossible. In that moment, listening to Mary’s chatter, George accepted the ugly truth about himself. It wasn’t pleasant, and he abhorred himself for the hatred that had twisted his heart into a version of his father’s. It shamed George greatly, but he refused to shut his eyes any longer to the truth.

He’d been on the wrong side of his own conscience long enough.

Resolve is relatively easy when it’s done silently, on the back of a horse, miles and miles away from those who would fight him. His insides melted at the thought of being put to the test, of proving the veracity of his repentance– for that was what George figured this was, repentance. He’d been raised from a child on the Good Book, and didn’t have to run to his Bible to search the Scriptures for a text to calm his soul. It shamed him to know the words were in his mouth, in his heart all along. All he had to do was be honest, and live by them.

“‘The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart…'” George quoted the words from Romans chapter ten, whispering them to himself and to God.

“What, George?” Mary craned her neck up at him until her nose pointed straight into the dawning sky. “Are you hurting any?”

“What makes you ask that?”

“Yer crying,” said Mary.

George checked his eyes, and sure enough, his fingertips felt wet.

“No, I’m not hurting.” He sniffed back his feelings, preferring to divert Mary’s attention to something less painful. “Let’s review your lessons,” he said, summoning his teacher’s voice so Mary would understand it wasn’t a suggestion.

Mary seemed content with his answer, and started in on her alphabet, and then some spelling. By the time they stopped for lunch, George was feeling much better and praying for an appropriate opportunity to speak with Josiah.

They made slow but steady progress as they traveled, for everyone had to keep an easy pace for Josiah and Cora’s sake, who were both on foot. At every moment, Emma expected to see the free trappers, but the way they had passed through earlier was now quiet, and Josiah left the Yellowstone with the firm conviction that his friends were on their way to the rendezvous.

Sometime in early July– Emma couldn’t be sure of the date and didn’t feel a need to ask George to check his journal– Josiah stopped their caravan beside a lake and announced they would remain for a day or two to rest. This came as an unexpected surprise to Emma, but even more so when Josiah produced two blocks of soap he’d traded from the Crow back in the Yellowstone.

“I reckoned you’d want to get cleaned up afore anyone saw you,” he said, grinning as he passed a block to Emma. The other, he tossed to Will. “It may take a good deal of scrubbing to get clean, but you only got two days. Then we’re leaving.”

The women immediately took their soap, Emma’s shotgun, some blankets, and went a short distance from camp where they could bathe in privacy behind the cover of some trees. Josiah kept watch over the area, hollering at Emma every so often to see if they were all right. This frequently occasioned a yell from Mary to not come any further, for she was in the lake, or drying off, or combing her hair; even at nearly six years old, she possessed a great deal of modesty and Emma could not get her to fully relax until she was back in her deerskin dress and her hair had been braided.

After all, Mary repeated Emma’s own instructions back to her, “It isn’t seemly to wear your hair unbound in the presence of men.” Grand words from such a small girl, and yet Mary had remembered every one.

Soap made Emma’s hair shine as it hadn’t in a long while, and her skin rejoiced as the grime and dust of the past months washed away into the cool lake water. It was a beautiful day, a tranquil lake surrounded by green trees, sheer walls of mountain rock, and everywhere the feel of summer. She inhaled the fragrant air, dipped herself into the water to rinse away the last of the suds, and came up feeling refreshed.

When they arrived back at camp, they found Will and George wrapped in blankets, for they had not only washed themselves, but their clothes as well. Their store bought clothing was spread on the grass to dry, and according to Will’s mutter, they couldn’t dry fast enough.

“Thought you ladies would take longer,” he said with a flush of crimson showing beneath his shaggy beard.

A smile flitted across Cora’s mouth, but she said nothing and pretended to not even notice Will’s blanketed condition. Emma knew Cora pretended, for the woman deliberately kept her back to him until Will had his shirt and trousers back on.

Josiah went down to the lake as well, though not as modestly as everyone else. He stripped off his buckskins in plain view, so that Emma had to avert Mary’s eyes until he dove into the water. Will hooted something to Josiah, and Josiah laughed and slapped water in Will’s direction. Cora shook her head at their boyish conduct, for these were grown men and not children.

Hat in hand, George approached Emma. “Mrs. Brown?” he asked, as though already apologizing for his intrusion, “may I ask a favor?”

Emma looked up from her sewing. She was letting out some of the seams of her blue one-piece dress, mainly to allow for a larger bosom. The waist would be no problem, for it was higher than her natural waistline, and would allow for a large belly. If the alterations went as smoothly as she hoped, she would wear it at the rendezvous. At her side, the ornate sewing box lay open, scissors and spools of thread stored alongside lengths of buffalo sinew.

“I was wondering,” asked George, turning his eyes to the box, “if you’d do me a great favor and cut my hair. I’m probably as overgrown as Will and Josiah by now.”

“No one is as overgrown as Josiah,” Emma said with a small laugh. George’s brown mane had grown until it nearly skimmed his shoulders, while Josiah’s was almost half way down his back. “Sit down, and I’ll do my best. I must warn you, though, I haven’t given a man a haircut since my Pa.”

Smiling, George sat down. Not to her surprise, he wanted it cropped short, the way men often looked out of the wilderness, in more polite society. She made quick work of it, and when she had finished, offered her mirror to George. He admired her handiwork, then asked if he could borrow the mirror a little longer.

“Well, now,” said Will, as George went to join him on the other side of the campfire, “don’t you look fashionable!”

“You could do with a haircut, yourself,” said George. “You look like you just crawled out from under something, and that you were there for some duration.”

Will harrumphed, though the teasing left his face. “Emma, I don’t suppose–”

“I’d be happy to, Will,” she said, brushing George’s locks from her lap.

Mary crouched beside George, and watched as he lathered his face for a shave. His scant beard wasn’t much, but Emma was in the habit of seeing George scratch his face now and again, and knew he was eager to be rid of it.

Using Emma’s mirror to guide his knife, George scraped his cheek until he paused to look at Mary peering closely over his shoulder.

“Don’t you have something else better to do?” he asked.

“No,” said Mary, and remained where she was until George had finished. “You look real pretty,” she told him after he’d washed the lather from his face.

The young man didn’t look as though he knew how to take the compliment, and scowled. “Thanks,” he said, and hurried to return Emma’s mirror.

Emma was so preoccupied in cutting Will’s hair, she didn’t notice Josiah leave the lake, dress, and come to watch Will get his haircut. It was only when Will made some passing comment to Josiah, that Emma looked up to see Josiah intently watching.

Josiah didn’t remain there long, for Cora called to him, and he went to go see what she wanted. Cora held a blanket in her hands, and said something Emma couldn’t hear.

“My trousers are fine the way they are,” Josiah said loudly. Cora persisted in her mission, whatever that was, and Josiah finally swiped at the offered blanket with a brooding grimace. He took off the pants, tossed them at Cora, then wrapped the blanket around his waist as though she were putting him to unnecessary bother.

With a sigh, Emma returned to Will’s haircut. She wished Josiah and Cora got along better than they sometimes did. It was as if past disagreements couldn’t quite be overcome, though Emma thought mother and son probably had a much better relationship now than in the past. She smiled to herself when Josiah paused to say something reconciliatory to Cora. Cora nodded, then sat down to work on mending Josiah’s trousers. They were both trying.

After Will’s haircut had finished, Will borrowed Emma’s mirror and went to go shave his face clean, just as George had done earlier. He lathered his face liberally, took the blade to his skin, and soon came away looking quite the gentleman. Emma watched as Will deliberately passed in front of Cora, lingering until the woman looked up to acknowledge his presence. If Cora liked him without the beard, she didn’t show it. Instead she gave him one of her stoic looks, then returned to her work. Will’s shoulders slumped in a defeated sigh, and he limped off to go sit with Grandpap and talk of the coming rendezvous.

Emma dusted her lap of yet more hair, was about to return the scissors to their box, when Josiah sauntered forward with the blanket absurdly tied about his waist. He nodded to the scissors.

“Reckon you got enough time fer one more, Emma?”

“One more what?” she asked. Surely, he couldn’t mean a haircut. Emma waited for him to say something about mending his hunting shirt, which had needed her attention ever since he’d descended a vertical rock shelf the day before. He was impossibly hard on his clothing, either ripping holes, or tearing apart seams that needed to be rejoined with sinew. It was no wonder Cora wanted to repair his trousers.

“I’m meaning one more of them haircuts,” said Josiah, frowning at her difficultly to understand him. “What did you think I meant?”

“You do know what a haircut is?” asked Emma, holding up the scissors and giving them a quick warning snip. “It means your hair will be shorter.”

“I’m knowing that,” he scowled. He came forward as though he were saving someone’s life by taking their place in a firing line, grimly seated himself before her and waited.

She stared at his back, not daring to touch his locks with the scissors.

“Well?” he asked, twisting about to see her. “What are you waiting fer?”

“You want me to cut your hair.” Emma looked at him seriously. “You’re sure about this.”

He gave a puzzled sort of scowl. “I wouldn’t have asked you to, if I wasn’t.”

“You want it cut short?”

Josiah nodded. “Just like you did fer George and Will.”

Still she hesitated.

“I’ve had my hair cut before, Em. Stop looking like yer about to take off my arm. It won’t hurt me none.”

“Very well,” said Emma, taking a deep breath before starting in. She sectioned off his still damp hair, lifted the first piece, put her scissors to the lock… then snipped it off. Josiah didn’t flinch, though when she dropped a handful of hair near his elbow, he took it and looked it over as thought it were a discarded appendage and not simply hair. Emma knew Josiah was taking a big step toward entering the white man’s world.

A step he couldn’t easily take back.

Then came the lock of hair that held her eagle feather. Emma cut it off, and Josiah raised his hand to accept the feather.

“I’m keeping that,” he said with a grin in his voice. “I ain’t needing a feather to remember who I belong to, but I reckon I don’t want to give it up just yet.”

She caressed the back of his neck, and was rewarded with a sigh of contentment.

This haircut took much longer than the others, simply because there was so much hair to sort through. By the time it was over, Emma was buried in a massive lion’s mane of tangled semi-curls, knots, and sun-streaked hair.

“I don’t know if you’re going to like the way you look,” said Emma, as Josiah turned about to face her with his new haircut, “but one thing’s for certain– you’ll be cooler in the sun.”

“I feel cooler right now,” he said, touching the back of his head.

His eyes met hers, and they held, as though waiting for her reaction.

Emma took her time to look him over before giving a verdict. It only required a moment’s observation to see that Josiah’s face had sharpened by the removal of all that hair. His dark eyes were more penetrating, the mouth more noticeable. The sharp, chiseled angles of his face gave him a startling handsome appearance. Josiah had always been a handsome man, but now, since she could so readily see his face, that quality was now devastatingly obvious. No wonder he had little difficulty talking women into his bed.

At once, Emma shook the thought from her mind, determined to concentrate on the present, and not the past.

“That bad, huh?” asked Josiah, mistaking her determination as a sign that he looked worse, and not better.

“You look very handsome,” said Emma, digging her lap out from under all the hair.

Josiah didn’t look at all convinced. “Yer just saying that to make me feel good,” he said, touching his scalp this way and that. “I feel naked, Em. Like I don’t have something on that I should.”

Emma smiled. “Your trousers would be a good place to start.”

“Ma won’t give them back until they’re finished.” He sighed as he stared at the huge pile of hair. His eyes flicked back to Emma’s, as if to check whether or not she were looking. Since she was, he broke into a smile– one of those confident male grins Josiah gave with great ease. Whenever he did that, Emma felt very aware of herself as a woman.

“Go wash your head in the lake,” she said, tossing a handful of hair at him to make him leave. “I don’t have time to frolic. I have work to do.”

He leaned forward on all fours and approached her like a grizzly bear, wild and untamable.

“Now, Josiah,” Emma tried to smother a nervous laugh but failed miserably, “please, don’t–” He pushed her onto her back, gently but deliberately, until he looked down at her with all the calm assurance of a man who knew he was loved. Josiah lowered himself and kissed her, until their surroundings became a dim blur to Emma. She ran her fingers through what remained of his hair, felt his heart quicken into a rapid thump, then withdrew her lips before his kisses grew more insistent.

He peered down at her, his expression as tender as any she had ever seen.

She brushed the hair away from his forehead, as was the fashion, and let herself admire him without embarrassment. He grinned, and hugged her until she insisted that he let her return to her sewing.

With an expert eye, Cora mended Josiah’s trousers, cutting off the irregular stumps of any remaining tassels, tying shut any seams that were close to splitting, and overall, making them more presentable than Emma had thought possible. They were still dark with grease and wear, but they looked tidy.

After Josiah had pulled on his pants, Will hobbled to him with something white folded in his hand. Without any ceremony, he presented it to Josiah.

“What is it?” asked Josiah, staring at the cloth as though anything not made of leather couldn’t be trusted.

“It’s a shirt,” said Will. He thrust it at Josiah. “Now that you’ve gotten a haircut, you’re looking downright civilized for a change. All that’s missing is some cloth on your back. I have two shirts to my name, and I’m giving one of them to you.”

“Why?” asked Josiah.

Will glared as though he’d just been insulted. “You’ve accepted me as a friend until I feel like family, and you have to ask why?”

“I was only asking,” said Josiah, opening the folded garment until Emma could see an off-white linen shirt. It was of the pullover variety, and had generous sleeves and a broad collar. It was easily Will’s best clothing.

Josiah nodded to him gratefully. “I’m much obliged.”

Promptly dismissing the thanks, Will turned about and resumed his place by the fire.

Though Will didn’t notice the look of approval on Cora’s face, Emma did. Any suspicions Emma entertained of Cora favoring Will for his kindness to Josiah, were later confirmed at lunch, when Cora gave Will more food than any of the others.

The next day, after Josiah had plunged his head into the lake to wash the sleep from his eyes, he returned to camp only to have everyone stare at him.

“What?” he asked.

“Your hair,” said George.

“What of it?” asked Josiah.

“It’s curling.”

“It always does.”

“Not as much as it is right now,” said George.

“Thought something looked different,” said Will. Fun glinted in his eyes, putting Josiah on his guard. “Now that you come to mention it, George, you’re right. Josiah is curling something terrible.”

“No, I ain’t,” said Josiah, rising to his own defense. “My hair is just shorter, that’s all. Ain’t that right, Emma?” he asked, turning to his sunshine for agreement. “I ain’t curling, am I?”

To his horror, Emma tried very hard not to smile. “I’m afraid you are, Josiah.”

“Let me have the mirror.”

She looked hesitant to hand it over. “Maybe you could comb your hair with your fingers. Maybe it might take some of the curl out. And remember, I could always cut it shorter.”

“The mirror, Emma.”

She took out the looking-glass, then handed it to him with an expressly loving look. “Whatever you may think,” she said, not releasing the object just yet, “I think your curls are very endearing. They make you seem not quite so intimidating.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he said tugging the mirror free. He would never admit it, but those comforting words from Emma made him feel much easier, even after having glimpsed himself in the shiny surface of the mirror. It was as he had feared. His shorter hair curled much easier than when it was long, but at least Emma thought they were endearing, whatever that meant; it probably wasn’t something he wanted to know. It was enough Emma kept looking at him, until he felt as warm as if he had been sitting fully in the sunlight and not beneath the shade of some trees.

The results of her compliment didn’t last very long, though Emma guessed Josiah’s brooding had little to do with his hair, and everything to do with the upcoming rendezvous. The restless quiet that had seized him upon first discovering his friends in the Yellowstone, seemed to afflict him yet again as they resumed their trip. He kept his thoughts to himself, though by now Emma didn’t feel the need to encourage him to speak to her. She knew him well enough to know what he was thinking, what he was feeling, without having to ask. She prayed and watched during the day, and at night, in the privacy of their robes, she comforted him with unspoken love.

Emma had yet to grow accustomed to Josiah’s appearance. His short curls and store bought shirt, made him look more like a tradesman, and less like a trapper. At first, she found it disconcerting to see her husband in such a different light, but then, his dark eyes would flash their intensity, and she would see the old Josiah just below the surface of the new one. It reminded her of something Josiah had once said: “You can take the man out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the man.” She prayed the mountains in Josiah could be tamed enough to allow for a life elsewhere.

Not long after their rest beside the lake, Josiah spotted a trail of smoke in the distance. He made everyone stop, and taking his horse back from George, quickly mounted to see what was up ahead. When Josiah returned, he announced they were nearing the confluence of the Siskadee and Horse Creek, and that the smoke they had seen had been from a Shoshone encampment.

A heightened sense of danger and excitement filled the air as they pressed on. The sound of barking dogs, the smells of cooking meat and burning fires, the crowded din of many people in one location, all announced the rendezvous long before Emma had gotten close enough to see it clearly. A long line of Indian lodges for as far as she could see, followed the contours of the Siskadee, or Green River as it was sometimes called. Here the verdant grasslands could feed the many horses that the Indians had brought to be traded, and the trees crowding the riverbanks gave the villages shelter while they watched their herds. Even to an outsider such as Emma, it was abundantly obvious why such a desirable location had been chosen for the gathering. Smells, sounds, the awareness of people were all about her, overwhelming her senses. After so long in the mountains with only a handful of faces to look at, even five more would seem like a surplus. Here, they were everywhere. They spoke English, French, native tongues she couldn’t even guess.

She saw Indians and white men alike, though it was frequently impossible to tell them apart until they were close, for some of the white men dressed even more fantastically than the Indians.

A group of men wearing store bought shirts passed Emma’s horse, more than one gasping in astonishment when they saw her.

“Ma,” Mary whimpered from the pony she shared with George.

Though Emma wanted to do more, she could only give Mary a smile of encouragement. George patted Mary’s shoulder, and to Emma’s gratitude, the child seemed comforted. Emma couldn’t blame her daughter. There were more people here, than Mary had probably seen in her entire life– thousands of Indians, and at least hundreds of white men– all in one place. It was enough to make Emma feel bewildered, let alone a frightened child.

The sound of gunshots burst from up ahead, and Emma strained to see what was happening. Wild war cries, terrifying whoops, and even more gunfire filled her ears until they hurt. Mary cried out, but George hugged her from behind with his arm and she quieted. For all the sounds of alarm, Emma couldn’t detect anyone appearing frightened. On the contrary, she glimpsed Josiah shoot off his own rifle with a loud whoop, then go to heartily shake hands with a wild looking man. Dogs barked excitedly, one yelping as someone’s horse came too close. Men appeared from their lodges, women paused their work, and children crowded around their elders as Josiah greeted more men.

With a quick check of her blue woolen dress, Emma summoned her courage. She knew she would need it.

“You ornery breed!” she heard an older, rather heavy man shout to Josiah with a shocking amount of affection, despite the harshness of the words. “I gave you up fer dead when you didn’t show up at Jackson Hole!”

“What happened to you?” asked another, dressed in crude leggings and a hunting shirt. “You been sick, Josiah?”

“I had my hair cut,” came Josiah’s stony reply.

“Don’t you know,” Mr. Heavy joked with Mr. Leggings, “a squaw cut off his hair in his sleep, and now he don’t have any strength left! Just like Samson and Delilah!” Mr. Leggings didn’t appear to understand the joke, prompting an impatient jab in the ribs from Mr. Heavy. “You heathen! Ain’t you ever been taught from the Bible?” Mr. Heavy ignored the continued blank stare of his companion, and turned back to Josiah with renewed interest.

Other wild looking men pushed their way through the gathering crowd, until Josiah was completely surrounded.

“What’ve you been up to?” asked Mr. Heavy, the genial tone of his voice giving way to a chiding reprimand. “I thought we agreed to meet up before winter, then start spring trapping in the Blackfoot country before anyone else.”

“He kept all the beaver to himself!” shouted a lanky fellow in buckskins; he wore a felt hat with a feather stuck in it, and when he turned to one side, Emma saw the man must be like Josiah– a half-breed.

“Calm down, Three Guns,” said Mr. Heavy, obviously the leader of the group, “give Josiah here a chance to speak. Maybe he was mauled by a griz, and decided to pass the winter in a snug lodge with some beauty of a squaw. He’s done it afore.”

“Well, Josiah?” pressed Three Guns. “We came to rendezvous without any prime pelts to trade. It is because of you.”

“Something came up, and I had to change my plans,” said Josiah. For the first time since Emma had known Josiah, she saw naked fear behind his eyes. He relaxed his stance a little, grinned, though both looked forced. “I was with a woman, all right, and David here is right– she’s a purty one.”

“I knew it!” David, the heavy one, said in half glee, half disgust at his own lost fortune. “Josiah, boy, one of these days, women are going to be the death of you.”

“Not this one,” Josiah grinned lazily. “I got myself a wife.”

Mr. Leggings gave out a hoot, yelping his head off like a man who’s just had someone set fire to his britches. But instead of looking as though he were in pain, he wore a grin. “You reprobate, I never thought you’d go and get yourself hitched!”

“Where is she?” asked David, settling his hands on his large belly. He looked about the crowd, his expression fixed, as though he were determined to approve of whatever woman Josiah had chosen. “Bring her out, so we can congratulate the new Mrs. Brown!”

Some of the wild men had noticed Emma by now, gaping at her as though they’d never seen a white woman before; she wondered at their astonishment, for by the looks of them, they most likely had one in their immediate family.

Josiah moved toward her, and a murmur started through the crowd.

“Em, I’d like you to meet some good friends of mine,” he said, carefully helping her down from the horse.

Emma smiled at Josiah, but he didn’t smile back. With a solid grip, he took her by the hand and led her through the crowd to David.

It would be an understatement to say David’s jaw fell open. Complete and entire shock covered his face. He stared numbly at Emma, turned his eyes to her belly, then looked to Josiah for an explanation.

“We’re expecting,” said Josiah. His manner was carefree, but the muscles grasping Emma’s hand were pulled tighter than wet sinew drying in the sun. “Emma, this here is David Lambert. He’s been trekking these mountains fer ages, and more than one trapper owes his hide to the steady aim of his rifle. My life included.”

Emma curtsied politely, and David, who didn’t look as though he trusted his eyes, gave an awkward bow that betrayed he was unused to polite society.

“At one time or another,” continued Josiah, his hand still clasped around Emma’s, “David’s worked for almost every fur company there was, until he decided he liked the freedom of going where he liked. Ain’t that right, David?”

There must have been an invisible stick holding David’s mouth wide open, for besides her own presence, Emma couldn’t explain the bewildered shock on the older man’s face.

“I’m very happy to meet you, Mr. Lambert,” said Emma, with what she hoped was a warm smile. “I’ve never been to a rendezvous before. I must say,” she said, looking about the crowd, “I’m quite impressed. Josiah never told me it would be anything as grand as this.”

Gunfire on the opposite side of the camp announced the arrival of more attendees, and Emma inched closer to Josiah.

“They’re just saying howdy to each other,” said David, taking notice of her apprehension. “Excuse me, ma’am– Mrs. Brown– but I can hardly believe my eyes. Are you truly Josiah’s wife? This Josiah? The man standing right next to you?”

“Of course I am,” said Emma, in a tone of astonishment that anyone would ever think to question it, “who else would I be?” Emma smiled sweetly, and David and the others looked dumbfounded for a response. “Oh, Josiah, your friends are the most fascinating gentlemen I’ve ever met. You never told me they were this hospitable!” Emma batted her eyes at Josiah, and Josiah looked at her as though she’d lost her mind.

Emma would have agreed that she had, but something warned her to turn on every charm she possibly could. Instead of timidity, she behaved as a woman who confidently expected others to treat her as she treated them. With polite respect.

Her endeavors were quickly rewarded.

Shoving past David, Mr. Leggings gave Emma an exaggerated bow. “I’m Nehemiah Bell, ma’am,” he said, flashing her a toothless grin. “We’re honored beyond measure to have you here, ain’t we fellers?” He jabbed an elbow into David’s gut, perhaps to get even for the same thing having been done to himself a few moments before, and David, who was still overcoming shock, stammered out his agreement. “Won’t you come this way and take a load off yer feet?” Nehemiah asked, grandly sweeping a hand over to a pile of skins beneath an open tent-like structure. “It isn’t everyday we’re favored by the presence of a real lady,” he added, as Josiah helped her to sit down.

“Yes, yes, that’s true,” stammered David, finding a place to sit in the shade beneath the tent. He looked at Emma, shook his head, then turned to Josiah as Josiah squatted beside Emma. “I knew you’ve been hankering after a woman of your own, Josiah, but I never expected this! Where did you get her?”

Emma laughed graciously. “Why, Mr. Lambert, you do have such a way with words. To hear you say it, I was an interesting object Josiah found and decided to keep.” She smiled, though it wasn’t far from the truth.

“How did he get you?” Three Guns asked pointedly. His question had been directed at Emma, but his dagger-like stare was aimed squarely at Josiah.

“I met my husband after the tragic death of my father,” said Emma, letting sorrow lend weight to her words. “Josiah rescued me when I needed it most, and our love bloomed and continues to bloom so much, I’m certain God directed our paths to cross when they did. I’m a very blessed woman.”

No one there– not even Three Guns– looked willing to contradict such prettily said words. Taking advantage of their speechlessness, Emma fanned her brow and commented on the warmth of the weather. Actually, the weather was mild and the breeze cool, and her woolen dress felt comfortable in the shade. But the others, still amazed at her being Josiah’s wife, only nodded that it was indeed a very warm day.

“If you gentleman will excuse us,” said Emma, preparing to get up, “Josiah needs to set up our lodge, and I must tend to our family. Can we expect to have the pleasure of your company later, after we’ve settled?”

A round of, “Yes, ma’am,” and “Anything you say, Mrs. Brown,” sounded from the men. Only Three Guns remained silent.

With a marked look of respect in his dark eyes, Josiah helped Emma to her feet.

By the time Emma left the free trappers, she felt more exhausted than when she arrived. The men had been taken off guard, and she knew the shock of her arrival was still new. Her prayers were earnest, urgently coming before God for favor and for help. She prayed Josiah would still be blessed with the same kind of peace, after the free trappers had a chance to think over what had just happened.

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Next – Fair of the Wilderness (Part Two0 Chapter) 27

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