Don’t forgot to read – Fair of the Wilderness : Chapter 26


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Already conscious of the stare of so many, Emma struggled not to buckle under the pressure as even more arrived to gawk at the paleface with the yellow hair and the blue dress. People crowded around Emma, onlookers jostling themselves to get a better glimpse. She did her polite best to ignore them, and with a tenacious grip, clung to Josiah’s arm as they passed through to where the family waited with the horses.

None of them had dismounted yet, especially Will. In a deliberate show of relaxed vigilance, he remained on the pony with a shotgun resting in the crook of an arm. His easy gaze roamed the crowd for trouble, until it fell on a pretty Indian girl whose bold stare betrayed unembarrassed admiration. He returned her admiring stare with a surprised smile, then slanted Cora a sheepish, highly apologetic look. From Will’s odd behavior, Emma guessed he didn’t want Cora getting the wrong impression. Even in Emma’s embarrassed fluster of being the center of attention, she noted the stern, possessive look Cora shot to the young woman. All this happened within the space of a few moments, giving Emma much to think about.

“There ain’t any room fer our lodge here,” said Josiah, giving out instructions to his family. “We need to head further up the river a short ways, so no one make camp just yit. Will, I’d appreciate your keeping an eye on the travois.”

An old Indian draped in a thin robe listened intently, as though he had an active part in the discussion. He followed Josiah’s horses as they were led to an area large enough for Cora’s impressive Blackfoot lodge. The old man made Emma nervous, but he wasn’t alone in his persistent curiosity. Many of the others took an active part in observing where they would make camp, what food they had brought, what they had to trade. Only when Josiah had told them they would trade later, did the people begin to disperse.

Before they arrived at rendezvous, Josiah had the foresight to conceal the coin box in animal hides. Even so, excitement fluttered in Emma’s stomach when he lifted the gold from the travois. Who could possibly guess that so much gold lay hidden in plain sight? Josiah nodded to her to stay by the gold, then went to help Cora set up the lodge.

It felt strange but somehow exhilarating to sit on a box worth four thousand dollars. The thought of what it could mean to their future, made Emma extra careful to guard the box every second of every moment until it had been safely hidden in Cora’s lodge.

When Josiah told Mary to gather firewood, the girl’s timid refusal prompted George to volunteer to go with her and help carry wood. With such friendship as this to guard Mary, Emma felt a little easier about letting Mary out of her sight. There were no longer very many watching them, though from the rowdy shouts of distant revelry, Emma remained on guard against any drunken troublemakers.

Jugs of whiskey and overly jovial grins were abundant at rendezvous. Whiskey came at a steep cost, but most seemed more willing to pay such a dear price for a few days of frolicking and merrymaking. When a half naked man ran past them with a jug slung over his shoulder, Grandpap joined the men who chased after the jug. It would have been funny to see an old man hurrying to get a taste, had the jug not been full of liquor.

The flurry of activity excited Josiah’s sensibilities, and Emma saw him straining not to go join them. She knew the attraction pulled at him, for he had told her nearly everyone at rendezvous drank. All around them, she could see men and even some of the women, getting drunk little by little. They drank when they played, they drank when they bartered, and of course, they bought more whiskey from the fur company that held the rendezvous. Will looked as though he hankered for a taste of it himself, though from the way he kept his distance from anyone who offered, it was clear he intended not to indulge. With everyone getting merry with strong drink, and everyone expecting everyone else to do the same, Emma understood when Josiah felt left out of the festivities.

Josiah hobbled the horses nearby, careful to keep them within easy sight of camp. Blackfoot were known to run off with unguarded horses at rendezvous, and Josiah did all he could to make sure his would still be there the next day. The tired animals fed on the grass so abundant on the banks of the Siskadee, their tails flicking away flies and mosquitos.

Inside Cora’s lodge, away from prying eyes, Emma and Cora set about making the shelter a home. A snug fire burned in the center of the room, while thick hides lined the floor to guard against the damp of the ground. Belongings were stacked against the walls, and blankets were folded, ready to be turned into beds come nightfall.

The men stood outside, talking with each other until Josiah squatted and poked his head into the lodge.

“Me and the others are going to look around, Emma. Will you womenfolk be all right on yer own fer a while? We won’t go too far.”

Emma hesitated to answer.

“Don’t worry, Em,” he flashed a confident grin. “I won’t get into any mischief.”

Giving Josiah to the Lord, Emma consented. She reminded herself that she trusted her husband to do the right thing.

The men left, and the women decided to remain in the lodge until they returned. Cora didn’t look timid about leaving, but Mary certainly did, and to be fair, Emma relished some time away from the inquisitive eyes outside. While Emma took the opportunity to get some rest, Mary sat by the open flap of the entrance and watched the people as they passed.

The maze of lodges held sights both familiar and comforting to Josiah. A familiar face would stop him every now and then, and as usual, he was plied with whiskey, and asked when he would return to Blackfoot country. The questions were mostly lighthearted and filled with half drunkenness, so Josiah had little difficulty changing the subject. He tried to say something about the new life he’d found in God, but they moved away from him before he had many words out of his mouth.

The chanting that accompanied an Indian game of “hand,” caught Will’s curiosity, and he called Josiah over to a circle of people to watch. An object passed from person to person, hand to hand, and someone had to guess who had it. In this manner, they gambled for the prize laying in the center of the circle– at present, three necklaces of fancy glass beads and some pipe tobacco. The people lost themselves in the chanting, the risk involved in the game, the whiskey that invariably found its way to the players.

Not far from this scene, white men occupied themselves with their own game of chance. A lively game of poker had men laughing and hollering at each other, while others lingered nearby to see who would win.

“Is that you, Josiah?” one of the players squinted at him, his bearded face pulled into something very much like a grimace.

“Henry.” Josiah nodded to the man.

“I got a bone to pick with you, Josiah.” Henry jammed his cards into a fist, more intent on Josiah than the poker game.

“Are you playing, or ain’t you?” asked the annoyed player beside him.

“I fold,” said Henry, glaring at Josiah as he threw the cards onto the buffalo hide they all sat on.

“Henry’s fixing fer trouble!” shouted a player, his face split into a broad grin.

“You owe me,” said Henry, scrambling to his feet and advancing toward Josiah at such a quick rate Josiah had to stop Will from raising his shotgun. “I want my calico back, and my knives, and the coffee and that jug of whiskey you stole. I want them back.”

“I didn’t cheat you, Henry, and you know it.”

“I don’t know anything of the kind.” Henry stopped several feet before Josiah, his broad shoulders squared for a brawl. “You owe me, half-breed. One way or another, I’ll get my money out you if I have to skin your hide and sell it.”

“Stay where you’re at, George,” said Josiah, reaching out to push back the young man who had come to his defense. “This ain’t yer fight.”

“But, Josiah–”

“If it ain’t Will Shaw!” Paul Tomlinson, a face familiar to Josiah, rose from the poker game; the others protested to yet another interruption and threatened to toss Paul out if he didn’t sit down. “We gave you up for dead when you went off with that Indian guide,” said Paul. “I see you’re minus a leg now. What happened?”

Will rested the shotgun on his shoulder. “That thieving guide left me and George for dead. Almost succeeded, too, if Josiah here hadn’t cut off my leg when it caught gangrene.”

“You’re fortunate to be alive,” said Paul.

“I know it,” said Will.

Paul gave a slow smile, though his eyes kept traveling between Josiah and the still very angry Henry. “You’re in over your head,” Paul told Henry. “Time you figured that out.”

Henry flashed Paul a puzzled look.

“Josiah’s got friends.” Paul nodded to Will and George. “If you haven’t been listening, he saved their lives.”

Henry still didn’t look as though he understood.

“You’re denser than a post sometimes,” sighed Paul. “Josiah’s new friends aren’t going to stand by while you try and beat him up. That ain’t exactly a toy Will’s got perched on his shoulder.” Paul tossed his cards onto the buffalo robe and stepped away. “If I were you, Henry, I’d leave well enough alone.”

Alarmed at being deprived of the opportunity to get even, Henry appealed to Will’s sense of justice. “That half-breed cheated me at poker.”

“So you told me last year.” Will’s flinty demeanor remained unchanged. Will wasn’t a man anyone wanted to tangle with lightly. Even with one leg and a wooden stump, Will made an imposing figure.

“Time to cut your losses, Henry.” Paul gave him a friendly smile, then walked away as the other men in the poker game grinned to see who would win the brawl. Already, bets were being placed, the odds stacking up in Josiah’s favor.

The men could have saved their bets, though, for the fight left Henry; he grumbled, made a few faces at Josiah, but backed off from further confrontation.

Disappointed in their hopes of a fight, the men returned to their poker game with renewed zeal. Everyone determined to have fun, and when one prospect went bust, another soon took its place. That was rendezvous.

“Let’s go see what’s going on over there,” said Will, pointing to a crowd gathering north of the encampment. “Maybe we can find someone to trade with. I’d like to see what we can get for our buffalo hides.”

“I don’t think they’re trading,” said George. “I think they’re listening to someone.”

“I’m obliged fer what you did back there,” said Josiah, as they pushed past the gambling on their way to the crowd, “but I could’ve handled Henry by myself.”

“You didn’t have to do it alone,” replied Will. “Not as long as I’m around to say anything about it.”

They joined the crowd to listen to a man speak, though Josiah didn’t pay any attention to what the man said. Josiah knew he could’ve handled Henry. He didn’t fear getting into a fight, not being able to defend himself. But that wasn’t the point. When had he ever had such a faithful friend as Will? Or even George? Men who were willing to share his fights, partake in his troubles without being asked? He’d had mountain friends before, men he could count on to help him when help was needed. But this went deeper than aiding someone to be sure they’d aid you. Josiah couldn’t put it into words, but something deep within his soul bound himself to these two men.

“What have you got to grin about?” asked Will, slanting Josiah a quick glance. “That parson up there is mighty longwinded, and far as I can tell, you’re the only one here who’s smiling.”

“Parson?” Josiah jolted to attention. He observed a rather young man standing on a crate before the crowd, one hand waving in the air, the other gripping a black book. “Is that what he is? A parson?”

“Near as I can tell,” shrugged Will.

“I wouldn’t mind speaking to him after he’s done,” said George, moving a little closer to listen.

Josiah’s smile widened. “I have something to discuss with him, myself.”

The sermon waxed long, and though the parson sounded with the inexperience that inevitably came with youth, Josiah appreciated his sincerity. When things came to a conclusion, Josiah couldn’t help but notice the disappointment in the parson’s face when so many returned to their pursuits without being visibly touched by his warning; the evils of gambling, immoral women and whiskey had seemingly gone unheeded– some going as far as to voice their rebellion as they left.

Even before speaking to him, Josiah sensed the parson struggled with discouragement.

“Interesting sermon,” said Josiah, stepping forward as the last of the assembly dispersed.

“‘Interesting’?” the young preacher looked horrified. “I pray to God it was more than that.”

“Whether they hear you or not,” Josiah assured him, “they were warned. I’m thinking that has to be worth something in God’s eyes.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” he replied, his features crestfallen at the solitary prospect. “I had prayed for greater success today.”

“The day ain’t over, yet,” said Josiah. “This here’s my friends Will Shaw and George Hughes. I’m Josiah Brown.”

The Josiah Brown?” the young parson stared at him in amazement. “I hadn’t been long in these mountains when I’d heard of your exploits. You’re the last person I expected to see in this morning’s congregation.”

This news gave Josiah great pain. “I hope I’ve done a heap of changing since then. You keep warning them people to do what’s right, to follow after God and give their hearts to Jesus. I’m living proof that a man can change fer the better.” Josiah hesitated, pleading with God that this sincere man would understand the situation. “I was wondering… would you be willing to marry me and my wife– officially, I mean?”

The parson narrowed his eyes, cautious to give an answer before he’d heard more.

“Me and Emma– that’s my wife– couldn’t get someone to wed us, so we’ve had to do without. There ain’t many parsons in these here mountains.”

“Not many doctors, either,” said Will, leaning forward to pat his wooden leg. “A man’s got to be everything in these parts to survive. Josiah is a good man, parson. He’s doctored me, hunted and tanned his own hides, been guide to me and George, and is a real good husband to a fine, upstanding woman. Has the smartest little girl, too– isn’t that right, George?”

“She’s a very good student,” George readily agreed.

With so much momentum behind him, Will took in another breath to continue his praise. In that wild moment of dread, Josiah thought of throwing Will to the ground, clamping his mouth shut until all the compliments had left him and he was back to his normal self. It didn’t matter that Will had only one leg and such a maneuver might be unfair. What man would blame him for defending himself against such high praise as this?

The moment for action was lost, however, almost as soon as Josiah was able to justify his plan. He heard Will say, (with a great deal of enthusiasm), “There isn’t a better man in these mountains than Josiah Brown!” and shut his eyes in deep chagrin.

“That’s an awfully big stretch, Will.” Josiah turned to the parson. “I don’t pretend to be a good man, deserving of such well-meaning friends as Will and George. But I am trying to be a better man than I was before.”

“Before what?” the parson asked, his face showing curiosity.

Josiah couldn’t help grinning. He wasn’t proud of himself– not by a long shot– but hewas justifiably proud of what God had accomplished through the woman who had so dramatically changed his life.

“A better man than I was before Emma,” he told the parson. “She’s a very special person. They don’t come any better than her.”

It didn’t surprise Emma when Mary remained by the lodge entrance. For all of the child’s timidity, Mary held a deep curiosity for the people outside. Even Emma found them fascinating. Nearly everyone wore animal skins, though an article of cloth every now and again appeared on someone– especially blankets. Some wore feathers in their hair, some adorned themselves with bright face paint, and some had quill trimmed garments with tassels of what looked to be human hair. The strangest sight of them all however, belonged to a white man dressed in a suit of armor! He clanked by them in obvious enjoyment of the spectacle he made.

“That Jim Bridger!” someone remarked, their tone laughing but at the same time respectful. “William Stewart sure is going to be sorry he gave him that armor. Hear tell it was shipped all the way from England, just fer this occasion.”

But Jim Bridger wasn’t the only white man making a scene at rendezvous. An artist by the name of Mr. Miller went about with a sketch pad, “taking down a likeness of everything he saw.” Thankfully, Mr. Miller never happened by their lodge, for Emma didn’t want to attract any more excitement than she already had by her arrival.

“The men are back,” Mary called over her shoulder, “and they’ve got someone with them.”

“Who?” asked Emma.

Before Mary could answer, the girl scrambled to Emma’s side.

They heard Josiah’s approaching voice before they saw any of the men. “I wasn’t so sure I could find anyone at the rendezvous willing to do it,” said Josiah, as Will fit himself through the entrance. “I call this Providence– I surely do. Yer certain you know all them fancy words that goes with it? My Emma likes those kinds of sentiments, although I’m not very big on them, myself.”

Will shifted himself to the fire as George entered the lodge. Both men wore big smiles on their freshly-shaven faces, though why they grinned, Emma had no idea.

“I brung you some company, Emma,” said Josiah, as a man even younger than George passed through the entrance. The man had no chin hair whatsoever, and his soulful mouth and jug-handle ears gave him a rather comical appearance despite his sober expression. His nervous, sad eyes darted about the room– first to her, then to Cora, then to Mary hiding at Emma’s side. “This here’s Parson Gray, Emma. Parson, this is my wife.”

“You’re very welcome here,” Emma smiled to the boyishly young man. He had to be sixteen or seventeen. Maybe even younger. He nodded to her with a nervous smile. “I didn’t know there were any parsons at the rendezvous.”

“Just one,” said Josiah, kneeling between the parson and Emma to reach into the open bag beside Mary. “Anyone hungry?”

Will and George both said “yes,” and Josiah tossed them each some pemmican.

“Parson?” Josiah held out some food to him, and the parson blinked in bewilderment. “It’s food,” said Josiah, placing it into the parson’s hand. Josiah paused to pray over the food, folded his legs Indian style before the fire, and spoke to the parson who just sat there with the sticky substance in his fingers. “So when do you think you can do it?” asked Josiah. “I don’t want it rushed or nothing. Emma deserves better than that.”

“Better than what?” asked Emma. “What’s happening?”

“I’ll tell you later,” said Josiah, his focus still on the boy. “I can pay you fer your trouble. I ain’t asking fer any handouts. What’s wrong? Why ain’t you eating?”

The parson warily looked at the sticky wad in his hand. “I don’t want to offend you,” he said shakily, “but what is it? Are you sure its edible?”

“It’s pemmican,” George said with a knowing laughing. “How long have you been in the Rockies?”

“A few days, I suppose,” the youngster shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“May I ask how old you are?” Emma inquired in a kind, gentle voice; she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“Fifteen, ma’am,” said the parson, slowly raising the pemmican to his lips. He nibbled, then finding it good, ventured to take a full bite.

“Fifteen is very young to be a minister,” said Emma.

His expression firmed, and in that moment, he no longer looked so very young. “I assure you, Mrs. Brown, I’m old enough to do the Lord’s work. I’ve had years of instruction from my adopted father and teacher, Parson Benjamin Gray of St. Louis, and am fully prepared to handle your husband’s request.”

“Request?” Emma fought back a question when Josiah waved her to be silent. Oh, that man!

“I fully understand the unique circumstances people find themselves in these mountains,” said the young parson, taking another bite and addressing Josiah once more. “I consider you and Mrs. Brown to be already married, for indeed, from what you tell me, you have both already consecrated your union to God. All that is lacking is a formal ceremony to make the vow official in the eyes of– how did you put it?– the white man’s world.”

“Thank you fer understanding, parson,” said Josiah, as Emma covered her mouth in stunned surprise. A marriage ceremony! Josiah was arranging for them to have an official ceremony. She had already been married the Blackfoot way, or at least, the half-breed way, for some months and yearned for a ceremony to acknowledge their vows before God. In her rush of gratitude to Josiah, she forgot to be irked with him for shushing her questions.

“I’ll be ready at your convenience,” said the parson, readily accepting more pemmican from Josiah. “This is remarkably good food! What did you call it?”

Sometime during the talk, Emma noticed Will and Cora leave the lodge together. No one asked why, for everyone’s attention fastened on the wedding, the youth of the pastor, what pemmican consisted of and how it was made. No one thought to question Will or Cora why they left, and though Emma had the opportunity, she chose not to ask.

On the first afternoon of their arrival at the rendezvous, Josiah waited outside the hide lodge with Will, George, Grandpap, and Parson Gray.

The women were inside.

“Hurry up in there, Emma!”

“I thought you wanted this done properly,” came the reply from the lodge.

“Proper, yes,” groaned Josiah, “but I was hoping it wouldn’t take all day. I got business to see to Em–” he stopped as Emma appeared from the entrance, her yellow hair brushed, the braids pinned up in her usual sense of tidiness. The blue dress had been brushed clean, and at her ankles, he could see the hem of her petticoat as she moved toward him.

“I’m ready,” she breathed in a deep sigh.

“Yer mighty purty, Emma.”

“No, I’m not, but I thank you for the compliment,” she said with a very fetching smile.

For a reason known only to Parson Gray, Josiah had to stand on a particular side of Emma before the ceremony could begin. It made no sense to Josiah, and even less sense to Grandpap who harrumphed when the parson wouldn’t begin until Josiah had moved. All this fuss over nothing!

Having gotten the bride and groom in correct order, the parson opened a book and rubbed a finger over some writing, as if to find his place.

Nervous, Josiah ran a hand through his cropped hair to make himself more presentable. A party of four Shoshone men had stopped to watch the proceedings, their inquisitive faces making him feel unnerved and self-conscious. He tried staring back at them, to give them the hint to move on, but they only sniffed and remained where they were. He sure hoped this ceremony wouldn’t require him to make a buffoon of himself in front of those Shoshone. It didn’t feel so good being easy entertainment to anyone who cared to watch.

The parson cleared his throat. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company…”

Josiah shot a sideways glance at four members of “this company,” and noticed one of the Shoshone take out some meat to gnaw on while he watched. A group of rowdy people passed close by, their hoots and hollers directed at some member of the rendezvous on the other side of camp.

The parson paused, waited a few moments for the noise to cease, then continued reading. “If any man can show just cause,” he offered out loud to anyone listening, “why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.”

Josiah couldn’t believe his ears. What was this young parson doing? Was he actually giving someone a chance to put a stop to the ceremony? Josiah glared at the four Shoshone, but they simply pulled out more food and went on with their meal. No one else said a word, and when the parson lost his place in the text and began to repeat the “just cause” offer, Josiah reminded him that he’d already read that part and to please move on.

It took some doing to understand the parson’s educated words, but Josiah thought he understood at least as much as Emma did. He looked at her, saw the eyes and long lashes trimmed with tears, and realized he was wrong. Emma had to be understanding more than him to look so moved.

As Josiah redoubled his efforts to work up a fierce concentration, the Shoshone began muttering amongst themselves, gesturing and pointing to both groom and bride. Maybe they wanted to know why the white woman cried and looked happy at the same time– Josiah didn’t know. He just wished they’d leave.

Somewhere along the way, the parson had stopped speaking and Josiah found himself the sole object of everyone’s attention.

“What?” he asked, feeling somewhat defensive, especially after having put in such an effort to follow every single word of the ceremony.

“I’ll re-read the question,” said Parson Gray. “Wilt thou have this woman–”

“Sure, I’ll have her,” interrupted Josiah. “Ain’t that why we’re here?”

“Please, let me finish.”

“There’s more?”

The parson cleared his throat, choosing to ignore Josiah’s question. “‘Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour her, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”

“Of course I will,” said Josiah. “I wouldn’t call myself a man if I didn’t take care of my wife.”

“The customary response is simply– ‘I will,'” said the parson, looking up from the book.

“Oh. Then I will.”

“Atta-boy,” Will said under his breath, tossing a wink of encouragement to Josiah as the parson addressed Emma.

“Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”

Without missing a beat, Emma said, “I will.”

Then Josiah had to repeat some words the parson read from his book. They were fancy white man’s words, but Josiah more than caught the impact of the vow he was making to Emma. He would take care of her and love her, come what may. Then Emma repeated the vow back to him, her voice a thick haze of tears and tremulous whispers. Josiah hoped the ceremony would soon be over, for Emma was fast dissolving with too much joy.

When Emma had finished her vow, the parson asked God to bless their union. The thoughtful words were interrupted by the thunder of gunfire as someone was welcomed to the rendezvous. Out of pure instinct, Josiah took hold of Emma’s hand, gave her a quiet squeeze to let her know he would protect her. Her fingers gripped his, and when the prayer ended, so did the ceremony.

To Josiah’s surprise, Grandpap stepped forward to be the first to offer his congratulations– if it could be called that.

“I guess you will not hang, after all.”

“Thanks, Grandpap.”

The old man grunted.

As George shook Josiah’s hand, Will moved Grandpap off to one side to speak in whispers. The urgent look on Will’s face intrigued Josiah, but he didn’t have time to think about it. Emma needed a hug in a desperate way, her emotions of happiness so powerful she looked on the brink of fainting. Josiah hugged her, freely offering his strength and support.

“We did it, Em– the white man’s way. I figure we’re about as married now as two people can git.”

Grandpap walked away from Will, the old man shaking his head with a resigned sort of smile on his tired face. Josiah thought Grandpap would go inside the lodge for a nap, but instead the old Blackfoot pulled out his pipe, loaded it down with recently traded tobacco and took an expectant seat on the ground.

“Something’s going on,” said Josiah, letting Emma lean into his shoulder to enjoy the happiness of the day. A hand clutching Josiah’s hunting shirt, Mary stood at Josiah’s other side, closely watching the four Shoshone who watched them.

“Excuse me, parson,” said Will, tapping the young man on the shoulder, “I’m afraid your work isn’t done yet. We’ve got another job for you.”

“Excuse me?” The fifteen year old stared at him. “I don’t understand.”

“We’ve got another wedding for you,” said Will, hoisting up his britches with an important smile. “Figured it might be some time before we found another parson who’d be willing to marry us, so Cora and I have decided to tie the knot– that is, if you’ll oblige us.”

“You’re going to what?” Josiah released Emma, swung about to face Will. Surely, he hadn’t heard his friend right.

Steady sky blue eyes leveled with cobalt steel, and to Emma’s surprise, neither backed down.

“Grandpap just gave his blessing– well, sort of. Said his daughter was old enough to do what she wanted without asking her father’s permission. So Cora and I are getting hitched. Wanted to ask what you thought about it all, but Cora said it wasn’t your decision and to leave you out of it.”

Ma!” Josiah turned to a very calm Cora. She looked at him mildly, her expression so fixed Josiah knew everything had already been determined. “Don’t I got anything to say about it?”

I am the one Will is marrying, Josiah– not you.”

“But, Ma!”

“If you’ve got any objections,” Will intervened, “best get ’em out in the open. Maybe you don’t like your ma’s choice?”

“I never said that. I’ve got nothing against you, Will. But I brought Ma to help out with Emma, not to go off and leave with someone we likely ain’t going to see again after rendezvous! I was looking forward to keeping ma with us!”

Frantic, Emma tugged at Josiah’s arm, but he felt too agitated to pay her any heed and persisted in getting an answer from Will.

“I wasn’t trying to rob you of your ma,” said Will. “She only said ‘yes’ after I promised not to take her from her son’s family.” He shrugged, though a faint smile formed around his mouth. “Guess you’re stuck with me.”

“Josiah–”

“Not now, Emma. I’m thinking.”

“But, Josiah–”

“Em, I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“I’ll do my level best to take care of your ma, Josiah. I’ll pull my own weight in this family, work my hardest to do what’s best for everyone.”

“I don’t know where we’ll be heading,” warned Josiah. “Nothing’s settled. I only know we won’t be staying here.”

“Won’t matter to me,” Will said with a shake of his head. “I’ve got no family but this one. So how about it?”

“Josiah,” Emma gripped his arm so tight he had to listen. “Let them marry.”

“Emma, aren’t you following any of this? Will and Cora are hauling off and getting hitched!”

She smiled warm sunshine. “I know, Josiah. Let them go through with it.”

“But they don’t even like each other, Emma!”

“Yes, they do. You just haven’t been paying attention.”

Skeptical, Josiah pivoted to Will. “I don’t suppose you’ve got anything to say for yourself?”

“I like her,” Will said quickly.

“How much?”

“Enough to ask her to marry me.”

Cora moved to Will’s side and gave Josiah a stern look. “It is enough, Josiah. We will marry now.”

“I like her plenty,” said Will, bravely taking Cora’s hand.

“Enough talk,” said Grandpap, prodding Parson Gray. “Marry them.”

With a gentle tug, Emma pulled Josiah away to let Cora and Will take their place before the parson.

“They’re making a terrible mistake,” Josiah whispered to Emma as the parson began the ceremony. “Just look at them, Emma.”

“I am looking,” she smiled, squeezing Josiah’s hand.

He stared at the bride– his ma!– standing beside Will, her eyes glinting with something Josiah hadn’t noticed before. Happiness. He struggled to remember when he had last seen his ma so happy, and was hard pressed for an answer. The groom held onto her hand until his fingers turned white– Will Shaw of all men!– his own joy plastered across his face as though he were the most blessed man in all creation.

“Don’t they make a lovely couple?” Emma whispered, her eyes brimming with fresh tears. “Oh, Josiah, I’m so happy for them!”

A thought occurred to Josiah. He looked down at his wife. “This didn’t come as a surprise to you, did it, Emma?”

Emma smiled knowingly. “Hush, I can’t hear the ceremony.”

Wrapping an arm around Emma, Josiah laughed in silence as Emma listened to the very same words she had heard only moments before when it had been their turn. Life certainly had a way of surprising him. More accurately, God had a habit of making things turn out in ways Josiah hadn’t thought possible. As he watched Cora and Will– hadn’t even thought probable. And yet, there they were, giving Parson Gray plenty of business and everyone grinning ear to ear as though they were the first brides and grooms the world had ever seen.

After the second wedding, George shocked everyone by giving Will such a hearty handshake, it took even Will by surprise. Without the slightest trace of reserve, George offered Cora his best wishes for a long and happy marriage. For someone who had in the past objected to mixed unions, George was giving an awfully good imitation of someone who’d had a change of heart.

They didn’t have meat ready for a wedding celebration, so Emma urged Josiah to trade one of their buffalo robes for some freshly slain venison from the Shoshone. Inside the lodge, everyone including the parson enjoyed the meal, made even more special by Cora’s savory herbs. Everyone ate their fill, relishing full bellies and the opportunity to celebrate with friends. They told stories, ate more venison, and lounged about to laugh and comment on what the others had said.

The skies faded with the retreating sun, until the hides stretched above their heads darkened with night. The parson thanked them for the hearty meal, good conversation and sound fellowship, then prepared to return to his own camp. His sister was waiting for him, he explained, and needed to return before his brother-in-law came looking for him. Everyone shook his hand, and then the young parson left, his spirits more encouraged than when he had arrived.

“It takes a good deal of courage to do what that youngster is doing,” Josiah said matter-of-factly. “I’ve got no reason to fear for him, though. He’s got uncommon good sense fer a boy.”

“I agree,” said Will. He waited a moment, then gave a loud yawn. “Reckon it’s getting close to bedtime.”

“Reckon so,” said Josiah. “It’s been a long day.”

“Eventful, too,” said Will.

A long stretch of silence filled the lodge, and when Josiah remained silent, Emma kicked Josiah’s foot. They both knew what Will wanted, and what Will was too embarrassed to ask.

A quiet, lazy grin spread over Josiah’s mouth. He studied the hide walls, slid Emma a knowing glance, then pushed himself upright.

“George, I ain’t knowing about you, but I’m hankering to sleep under the stars, tonight.”

“I think I’ll join you,” said George, gathering his rifle and a heavy law book from his belongings. “It’s a pleasant night for star gazing, don’t you think, Grandpap?”

Grandpap stared directly at Will. The old man said nothing, but set about collecting his pipe and tobacco to take outside.

Relief touched Will’s face. “Much obliged to everyone,” he said, nodding to Emma as she passed him to take the first load of bedding outside. “Feel badly about tossing you folks out of your lodge.”

“It ain’t our lodge,” Josiah flashed Will a grin. “It’s Ma’s.”

Outside, Cora built a fire pit while Emma unrolled buffalo robes and blankets a short distance from where the fire would be lit. The air felt cold, but not frigid, so they would have no need to move closer to the fire pit. The women could hear the men inside, lingering to talk before parting for the night.

“Are you sure about this?” Josiah’s deep voice asked. “You know what you’ll be called, don’t you? Squawman.”

At this, Cora straightened. She stared at the lodge to await Will’s answer.

“I know that,” said Will. “I know it, and I don’t care.”

A smile parted Cora’s lips as she went back to work, though from her slow movements, Emma knew she still listened.

“My pa was always ashamed of having a Blackfoot wife,” said Josiah, his voice hushed though not so hushed that Cora and Emma couldn’t overhear. “He beat Ma like an animal, then left her fer another woman. I was too small to put a stop to him, but I’m a man now and I won’t let that happen again. Are you sure you won’t be ashamed?”

The reply came strong and clear, without any hesitation or pause. “That woman is the finest I’ve ever had the good Providence to meet. She’s accepted me as her husband, wooden leg and all. I won’t betray her– I give my word, I won’t.”

“That’s good enough fer me,” said Josiah.

When Emma moved some belongings to use as backrests by the fire for tomorrow’s breakfast, she noted the smile had not left Cora’s face. Tonight, Cora didn’t seem haunted by her usual reserve. Some people show their emotions easier than others, and tonight, such a happy display came easy to Cora.

With dawning understanding, Emma felt this was a testament to Cora’s difficult life.

They made a good match, Emma decided, going back to make sure Mary’s bed would be comfortable. Cora had quiet strength, and Will, the sensitive heart to take advantage of that strength, and give something back to Cora that she hadn’t had in a very long time. A husband who loved her.

After wishing a good night to Will, Josiah and George and Grandpap left the lodge for the newlyweds.

Her heart warmed when Emma saw Cora approach Josiah. The mother placed a hand on her son’s shoulder, and though they never said a single word, in that quiet moment, Emma knew Cora was thanking Josiah for what he had said to Will.

The fire ready, the beds made, Cora stepped into the lodge, then tied the entrance shut behind her.

“I’m not tired,” Mary protested, her eyes struggling to stay open as Emma tucked her into bed. She cuddled into the blankets with her two dolls, said her prayer, and smiled sleepily when Emma gave her a kiss on the cheek.

It had been a long day for Grandpap. He lay down on the bed beside Mary’s, the tobacco pipe still in his hand; if he wanted to light it and have a smoke, he fell asleep before finishing his purpose. Reclined on his side with one of Emma’s blankets tucked about him, it didn’t take many minutes before he snored loudly, an old man who very much needed his rest.

As George stretched out on his buffalo robe and said goodnight to an already fading Mary and a snoring Grandpap, a group of men moved through the encampment, and stopped at Josiah’s fire.

“Howdy,” said a male voice.

In an automatic reflex, Josiah reached for his flintlock. His posture relaxed as the men stepped into the ring of firelight. They gathered round the fire with Josiah, the mood friendly though not without a hint of danger in the air.

“How’s rendezvous been treating you fellers?” asked Josiah, as David and the four men with him took seats on the ground.

From behind Josiah, Emma sat on her blanket and watched the posturing of the men. Josiah’s back directly faced her, but the others she could see without obstruction. Even to her poor eyesight, they looked restless.

Their presence made George wary. He leaned forward, whispered across Mary and Grandpap. “Do you think there will be trouble, Emma?”

“I don’t think so,” said Emma, grateful Mary had slipped into a peaceful sleep and couldn’t hear their conversation.

His expression thoughtful, George lay back down, braced the rifle across his chest, and propped his head up to keep a level gaze with the men around the campfire. This manly posturing reminded Emma that George had done a great deal of growing up since he first came to the mountains. Considering the relative safety of the situation, Emma decided to let him drift into sleep, as his heavy lidded eyes were doing at this very moment. If Josiah needed help, many could come to his rescue at a second’s notice.

“Where will you be trapping next?” asked the large man named David.

“I want to know something first,” said another, his tone angry to the point of belligerence. “We found a settler’s wagon at Jackson Hole, but there were no settlers. That woman was one of them, ain’t she.”

It wasn’t a question– more of an accusation– but Josiah simply tossed another twig into the already blazing campfire and remained silent.

“I told you,” said the angry man, thrusting a finger in Josiah’s direction. “He took the woman and killed her family.”

Josiah’s back stiffened. “The Blackfoot got to her pa before I could help. I buried him as best I could.”

“And kept the woman for himself!”

“Hush up, Three Guns.” David cast a withering glare at the half-breed. “Take your jealousy somewhere else. We came to visit a friend, not make an enemy.”

A cold wind blew into the camp, casting flames into the sky with sparks and embers, ruffling Josiah’s curls and sending a shiver into Emma. She drew a blanket about her shoulders, waited to see what would happen next.

“Is the trapping very good in the North?” asked David, resting his large hands on his knees. It looked awkward for a man of his bulk to sit on the ground with his legs crossed like an Indian’s. His head tilted, revealing a side profile with two large chins. “When will you be guiding us back to the rivers, Josiah? When can we go back into Blackfoot country?”

“You’ll have to find another guide,” Josiah said after a long pause. “I can’t take you. I’m leaving the fur trade.”

What?” David’s voice rose in irritation. “Of course you’ll take us! We’re yer friends, ain’t we?”

“You are,” said Josiah, his tone growing helpless and tense, “but I can’t take you into Blackfoot territory anymore. I ain’t welcome.”

“You were there all winter, weren’t you? And yet you came out alive.” David tossed aside Josiah’s words as though they meant nothing. “You’ll take us again.”

“I’m leaving the Rockies, David.”

The camp came to a complete hush.

“Leaving?” David asked finally. “Where will you go?”

Josiah shrugged. “I ain’t knowing yet, but me and Emma have plans. As soon as rendezvous is over and all our robes have been traded fer supplies, we’re leaving these mountains and heading West.”

“So much fer beaver,” said Nehemiah Bell, the man with the leggings and toothless grin. “All that waiting around for nothing.”

“Sorry, Nehemiah, but I got plans.”

“What about our plans? What about your friends?”

When Josiah didn’t have an answer, someone remarked about the fickle two-faced nature of half-breeds; then, one by one, Josiah’s friends left the campfire until only David and Three Guns remained.

The men sat in silence for a long while, the crackle of the fire mingling with the distant drunken shouts of rendezvous.

“She’ll leave you, Josiah.” David looked at him with a direct gaze. The light from the fire blinded the men from seeing outside their ring, though Emma could see them just fine. “You do not belong in her world, Josiah. You know this is true. She’ll see you don’t belong, but by then it’ll be too late fer you to come back. You’ll be stuck in some settlement, far away from yer real friends, and we won’t be able to help you.”

“I’m going, David.”

David stared at Josiah, thought creasing his heavy brow. “She’ll leave you the first chance she gets.”

“No, she won’t.” Josiah sounded adamant. “She loves me.”

“If that ain’t the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard you say, then my name ain’t David Lambert. I’ve already told you before there ain’t such a thing as love in marriage. Love won’t keep a man in bed after sunrise, or turn his thoughts to a woman he’s stuck with fer the rest of his life. What you need is a whore. Whores don’t tie a man down.”

Josiah was silent.

“You aren’t good fer anything besides trapping and hunting. Look at you– you can’t even read or print yer own name. Give her up, Josiah, before she leaves you fer someone else. You’ll never be able to keep a woman like that for long.”

To Emma’s dismay, Josiah’s head bowed, and his shoulders slumped as though discouraged. The attack had grown deeply personal. David’s aim seemed obvious, his objective clear: to remove her from Josiah, to shake Josiah’s confidence in their relationship. Then David could have his guide, his old fun-loving Josiah back as before.

Leaving George to doze with his rifle, Emma got to her feet. She had heard enough. This called for a desperate measure, something not typical of her usual conduct around strangers. Her marriage under attack, Emma refused to be silent and watch Josiah’s heart bleed at the hand of an old, influential “friend.” David Lambert had to be stopped.

Movement outside the ring of firelight caught Josiah’s attention. He gasped when he recognized Emma, boldly moving between Three Guns and David to come to his side of the fire.

“Why ain’t you sleeping?” asked Josiah, as he helped Emma onto the ground beside him.

Pulling Josiah’s arm around her, Emma snuggled against his hunting shirt. “I can’t sleep without you,” she said in a small, quiet tone that made him instantly protective. “When are you coming to bed, Josiah?”

“I’m busy talking to David and Three Guns.”

“Don’t let me interrupt,” Emma yawned with a cozy snuggle.

Unexpected feminine warmth made Josiah’s insides glow. He leaned his cheek against the top of her head, held his breath as Emma moved her hand to his chest.

“It won’t last, Josiah.” David’s onslaught came again, this time with more forcefulness than before. “It ain’t possible fer a man to feel so much fer his wife.”

Warm breath kissed Josiah’s face with Emma’s presence. Her fingers caressed him. He moaned, pressing his lips against her hair.

“One woman will never be enough. It was never enough in the past, and it won’t be enough in the future. You’ll always want more than what she can give.”

Emma’s head tilted back, and her mouth brushed against Josiah’s. Her lips parted, the kiss dramatic and deepening until Josiah’s senses were crammed to overflowing with Emma: the smell of her, the taste of her, the feel of her. David was saying something, but he couldn’t follow the words to make sense of what was being said. Her hand was in his hair now, shattering the last of Josiah’s concentration.

“Come to bed,” she whispered. He grinned, knowing those words would only be said to him, and to no one else. “Josiah.” She breathed his name– nothing more– and his heart hammered like an anvil in his chest.

“Where did you find her?” asked Three Guns, in obvious admiration.

Josiah sucked in a breath of cold air. “Sorry, but my wife is ending yer visit. Maybe tomorrow–” Josiah’s breath caught as Emma moved her hand to the back of his neck for another kiss. “This is goodbye, men.” Josiah dropped his mouth over hers, and didn’t come up for air until her passion had been soundly answered. With a free hand he pulled Emma’s blanket shawl over their heads and soon had the satisfaction of hearing David and Three Guns leave.

“Yer quite a woman, Emma,” he breathed into the intimate darkness. “Thanks fer saving me.”

They could not be alone, but Josiah and Emma enjoyed quiet kisses and more than one secret caress that night. They cuddled by the fire, happy in each other’s arms, content to let the world think what they wanted of two people half hidden under a blanket.

To anyone who cared to pause and watch them in the firelight, only a few moments of observation were needed to realize the reality of Josiah and Emma’s happiness.

It was plainly evident they were terribly in love.

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Next – Land of the Broad-Shouldered Mountains : Chapter 28

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