Don’t forgot to read – Fair of the Wilderness (Part Two) : Chapter 27
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After having spent the night cuddling with Josiah, Emma noticed him in considerably good spirits the next morning. He chuckled when Will and Cora didn’t emerge from the lodge, and told Emma to just let them be; they would come out when they were good and ready for company.
A contented whistle on Josiah’s lips, he and George went to see about trading their buffalo hides for supplies for the next leg of their trip. Wherever that trip would be. For all the struggle of getting Josiah resigned to leave this magnificent land of broad-shouldered mountains, Emma knew they would need a plan very soon. A plan as to where they wanted to go, and what they would do for a living after they got there.
With this on her mind, and Mary stacking more wood for the fire, Emma felt a sensation of mild alarm when she saw David Lambert standing on the outskirts of their camp.
Hat in hand, he nodded to her as she took notice of him. “Mrs. Brown?” The wide man moved hesitantly toward the campfire, his face almost contrite. “Might I trade words with you? I promise, I won’t offend you more than I already have.”
Skeptical, Emma smiled. “My mother advised me never to make any promises I wasn’t fairly sure of keeping, Mr. Lambert. I might offend easier than you think.”
The mountain man’s face crimsoned. “This time I ain’t liquored up, ma’am. I swear I’m stone sober.”
“So it was the liquor talking last night, and not you?”
The crimson deepened. “I’m begging yer pardon, ma’am. I underestimated you– if you don’t mind my saying. Yer a woman to contend with, that’s fer certain, and I don’t aim to get into another shootout with you over Josiah. I figure I’d lose before I even got started.”
In the light of morning, and without the influence of whiskey to fuel him, David seemed tame, close to likable. Not trusting him still, Emma invited him to sit by the fire. He wanted something, or rather, to tell her something; when he promised to behave, Emma said she would listen. She braced herself for an argument that her marriage to Josiah was doomed to failure, but instead, she heard something quite unexpected from the likes of one of Josiah’s wild friends.
“I never thought that young griz would up and get himself a mate,” said David, placing his rifle across his round knees. “He talked about it, but I never thought he’d do it. Then to find out he got a woman with some fight in her,” David grinned in open admiration, “well, let me say Mrs. Brown, I envy the ornery brute. I surely do. Even Three Guns told me he wished he was in Josiah’s place; if you only knew how much pride that breed has, you’d know just how big an accomplishment that is.”
“Mr. Lambert, I’m sure you didn’t come here to flatter me.”
“No, ma’am, I surely didn’t.” He slanted his head, looked at her with one eye. “I can see you ain’t just a petticoat, but a real woman. One that can make up Josiah’s mind for him.”
“I don’t manipulate my husband, Mr. Lambert.”
“You don’t, eh?” David chuckled, rubbed his bearded chin. “After last night, ma’am, I saw the handwriting on the wall. Unlike Josiah, I can read, and I know when I’m licked.”
Emma crossed her arms. “Please get to the point, if you have one.”
“Josiah said you hadn’t fixed on a destination yet.”
“No, we haven’t.”
Brows raised in evident pleasure, David continued. “Sometime back, I used to know a breed by the name of Ezekiel Thompkins. His pa worked for the British fur companies, and to his everlasting pride the son followed in his footsteps. Then this Ezekiel– this half-breed– up and quit his former occupation, turned his back on trapping, and now owns a farm in the valley of the Wallamut.” David paused, and Emma smiled.
“I believe I understand what you’re getting at, Mr. Lambert. If Mr. Thompkins can do it, then so can Josiah.”
“That’s my thinking.” David rubbed the knee of his britches, a manner that reminded Emma of her husband. “Of course, Josiah doesn’t know much about farming, but if you’ve got him leaving the fur trade, I reckon he’ll be willing to learn something different. At any rate, they allow breeds to own land in the Wallamut. I hear the farming’s good there, if Josiah is willing to stick it out until he learns how. It’ll be hard going fer a while. But then, if I’m guessing right, you don’t give up easy.”
The compliment only distracted Emma for a moment. “Where is this valley?” she asked.
“In the Oregon Country.” David watched her, as if trying to gauge what she thought of his suggestion.
“Why is it so important to you that Josiah goes there?” asked Emma. “Why are you trying to be so helpful?”
“Say what you want about me, Mrs. Brown, but Josiah and I go back quite a spell. Me and him are fine friends. I always figured we’d tramp these mountains long after the furs disappeared, living the free life fer as long as we could. It’s just as well that he’s made other plans. In spite of all the high talk at rendezvous just now, this way of life is disappearing fast. Josiah would be hard pressed for somewhere to go, something to do. I hear this country will be needing guides to lead settlers West, but don’t you let Josiah be one of them. For all his attachment to you, he’s mighty fond of women and I fear he won’t last long without tussling his wife.”
“Do you claim to know Josiah that well, Mr. Lambert?”
“Beg pardon, ma’am, just speaking my thoughts. For his sake as well as yer own, keep Josiah close.”
“These are very private matters, sir.”
“As I said,” David rubbed his knee again, the movement impatient, awkward, “Josiah and I go way back. But you do what you think is best.” For all his bulk David climbed to his feet with more grace than Emma had thought probable. “I don’t want to overstay my welcome, so I best be leaving now. There’s a jug waiting fer me somewhere, and I aim to find it. Good luck to you, Mrs. Brown.” And with that, David left in search of that morning’s whiskey.
In spite of the commotion around her from the merriments of rendezvous, Emma lost herself deep in thought. She watched Mary play house with some sticks the girl had bound and then covered with remnants of buffalo hide to create a lodge for her dolls. Emma touched her belly, felt the baby move inside her and wondered if David’s visit might be God showing them their future.
Around noon, Josiah and George returned, a big grin plastered across Josiah’s face.
“George and I have done some trading,” said Josiah, dumping an armload of supplies onto the robe. George did likewise. “We didn’t part with all the furs, just enough to outfit us with some necessities. Lookit, Emma– I got more ball, powder, and another flint to replace my old one.”
“And we purchased some coffee,” said George, pulling out a small bag of coffee beans and then holding it up for Emma’s inspection. “It’s not much, I’m afraid. The prices here are enormous.”
Josiah shrugged. “Them mountain prices are mainly so high, because it costs something dear to freight it out to rendezvous. We didn’t get any luxuries except that coffee, Emma. I knew you wouldn’t approve of spending more than we have to.”
Momentarily ignoring the dread of high prices, Emma pressed on with her small bit of news. “David Lambert paid me a visit after you left camp this morning.”
Though Josiah didn’t look pleased, his attitude remained unafraid, as if he knew David wouldn’t have hurt Emma. “What’d he have to say?”
“He suggested we settle in the Wallamut.”
To Emma’s surprise, Josiah took this news in stride. Face thoughtful, he leaned back on his elbows, stared at the clouds until at last breaking his reverie. “I reckon he’s thinking about Zeke.”
“If that’s short for Ezekiel, then yes, that’s the gentleman Mr. Lambert mentioned.”
Brow cocked, Josiah looked at Emma. “Gentleman? Zeke’s been called a lot of things, but that’s the first I’ve heard of him being a gentleman.”
The hide lodge opened, interrupting Emma’s response. Cora emerged with leftover venison, gave it to Emma to serve for lunch, then went about collecting the stacks of bedding to be returned to the lodge.
Unspoken merriment danced in Josiah’s eyes as he watched his mother go about camp as though nothing had happened.
When Will emerged, Josiah found his tongue.
“How’s everything?” asked Josiah.
Not answering, Will let himself down to the ground, adjusted the wooden leg, then shot a wary glance at Josiah as though he didn’t quite trust the question. “Well enough, I reckon. And you?”
“Same with me,” said Josiah. By now, George was grinning, too.
“Looks like we’re in for some nice weather,” said Will, looking up and inspecting the sky. “Yes, sir, tonight will be a good night for watching stars again.” Will turned, looked at Josiah.
“I reckon,” said Josiah.
“I’m obliged,” said Will.
The teasing out of the way, George showed Will the wares they had traded for that morning. “We didn’t touch your share of the skins,” said George. “Josiah thought you should have the right to make your own decisions.”
Will shook his head. “I’ve thrown in with this family, so I expect to do my part. Take whatever of my hides you need, Josiah.”
“I got enough without taking yers, too,” said Josiah. “George here already gave me his share, providing I help pay his way to go back East when he’s ready.”
Will sat up straight, stared at George. “Thought you was going back after rendezvous.”
“I am– just not all at once.” George fiddled with a blade of grass before looking up to face Will. “I asked Josiah if I could come with him and help him settle in his new country. I figured everyone could use the help.”
“You aren’t still running from your pa, are you?”
“No, simply postponing my trip.” George tossed aside the blade. “I’m a grown man, and I have the right to make my own decisions. There’s nothing I can do back East that I can’t do later. If I was a slaveholder, I wouldn’t put off my return…” George took a deep breath. “I’ve been meaning to speak to you, Josiah. I suppose now is as good a time as any, maybe even better than most.”
“I’m listening,” Josiah said between noisy mouthfuls.
“I want to apologize for what I said about not all men being equal. I was wrong, and I ask your forgiveness.”
Eyes fixed on George, Josiah swallowed the meat in a large gulp.
“When I killed those two Blackfoot to save Mary, I knew I had killed two men– not two creatures who were somehow inferior to myself. They were men, and their blood was every bit as red as mine.”
“You know what yer saying, don’t you?”
“I know.” George sucked in another deep sigh. “When I return, my father will be livid with anger. I can only imagine what he’ll say, what he’ll do to me. I’m going to stand for everything he’s against, and I don’t pretend it’s not part of the reason I’m delaying the trip. I need more time to prepare myself for what I have to do.” Resolution set into George’s young face as he locked eyes with Josiah. “When you need to make friends with your new neighbors, I want to be there.”
“I can stand on my own.”
“You don’t have to.”
This time, when Josiah swallowed again, he didn’t have food in his mouth. “Yer going to finish law school, ain’t you?”
“I intend to,” said George. “Aunt Dorothy will pay my way, even if my father won’t. I’m her favorite nephew, and she won’t deny me another chance at Harvard. Even if I take some time before returning.”
Quiet descended over the small camp, the friends and family eating their lunch in peaceful companionship. Then Josiah told the others what Emma had heard from David, and they began to discuss in earnest the wisdom of such a move. Will and George had already advised going further west, and when Josiah told them of Ezekiel Thompkins, they cast their vote in approval. Will declared it a grand idea. Before Will’s brother had died, Will had worked the brother’s farm, and knew all about crops and harvesting. Will had experience farming, and could be of great help with advice and counsel.
The Oregon Country. Even Emma’s pa had thought the land sounded promising, having planned to go there himself if things didn’t transpire well in the mountains. They hadn’t, and now Josiah contemplated the same destination.
Having discussed the prudence of the situation with Emma and the others, and having admitted to seeing God’s hand in the matter, Josiah stepped out in faith. They would go.
It had been a monumental day. In the space of a few hours, they had decided their destination and who would accompany the family. An air of excitement hovered in the lodge, around their camp, in the quiet conversation as they spoke about the future.
Before retiring into the lodge for the night, Will drew Emma aside and asked for a favor.
“After our talk today about going to the Oregon Country, Cora wondered if it would be possible for her to get a dress like yours– you know, one made of cloth, like the other women will be wearing. If I trade for some material, would you tailor a dress for her?”
“I’d be happy to do it, if that’s what she wants. I’ve been considering the same thing for Mary. She’s been begging for a white man’s dress for some time, ever since she’s seen my blue woolen.”
“Then I’ll make certain you have enough cloth to do both jobs,” said Will, grinning ear to ear. “I told my Cora she didn’t have to dress different if she didn’t want to, but she’s made up her mind to make the change. She’s a strong one, all right. Strong willed, too. Don’t know how I ever deserved her, but I got myself a real good woman.”
The next day, Will took the ladies to see the material available for trade. Emma suggested a dark brown fabric for the outer garments, sturdy and serviceable for everyday wear, while an off-white linen was chosen for the petticoats. Mary’s thrill at having a “twirling gown” as she called it, only made Will grin the harder. He had always doted on Mary before, and now he was a grandparent by marriage and would be living with Josiah’s family, Mary would be assured of continued kindness.
Not long after acquiring the cloth for Cora and Mary’s dresses, they had a visit from Parson Gray’s sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Donaldson. Mrs. Donaldson traveled with her younger brother and husband as visiting missionaries. After evangelizing the trappers at rendezvous, they would head South, their destination being the Republic of Texas. Mrs. Donaldson had a very plain face, polite manners, and treated Emma’s extended family with the same civility she gave to Emma. She talked of how she and her brother had been abandoned as very young children, and how Parson Benjamin Gray had adopted them as his own. While she talked to Emma, the younger Parson Gray spoke to George about the abolition.
The two youths spent hours in deep discussion over religion and the barbarity of slavery; Emma shuddered when she overheard Parson Gray’s impassioned retelling of how in St. Louis, it wasn’t a crime to rape a female slave unless it was deemed a “property trespass” against her owner.
When the evening concluded, and the guests returned to their own camp, Emma noticed the hardened resolve in George’s demeanor. She couldn’t help thinking George was destined to do great things.
The end of rendezvous made Josiah yearn to go back to the Rockies, hunt and trap and resume his former life as a mountaineer. The yearning didn’t pull at him as much as he thought it would, but still enough to acknowledge that old habits are not easily changed. He had been glad to speak to David again, to part as friends and not enemies. With his usual mix of good humor and doses of practical advice, David had wished Josiah and his family luck. David reckoned they would need it.
Josiah had heard of the Oregon Country, knew the general direction and how to get there, and had often crossed the easy terrain of the South Pass that had been made popular by Jed Smith. The Indians had known about the Pass for as long as the mountains had stood, but to the white man, this was a new discovery, a way to cross the Great Divide in wagons that had been previously unknown. While the rendezvous had been in full roar, Josiah gathered as much pathfinding information as he could from anyone who knew of the valley of the Wallamut. He would be pushing further into the Pacific Northwest than he’d ever gone before. Much further. He remembered one of his pa’s favorite jokes, a quote taken from Ole’ Daniel Boone himself: “I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.” In spite of his knowledge, Josiah figured he’d have his own share of bewilderment in the coming months.
With Emma getting bigger with every passing week, Josiah packed up his family and began the long journey to their new life. It was a grand feeling, a splendid start, but they made little progress for Josiah didn’t want to press Emma too hard. Her back hurt, her feet swelled, and after all of two months, Josiah made camp just south of Bear Lake. From here on out, he’d be more or less following the route Lewis and Clark had made during their heroic 1804 expedition. For now, just looking at Emma made Josiah anxious, so here they would camp for as long as Emma needed. Mountain men had held at least two rendezvous here in the past, and it would be a good place to let Emma rest and take care of her coming travail. Although trappers had fought with Blackfoot here in past history, Josiah had no concern of further trouble. They were far enough from his ma’s village, it gave him no worries.
What did worry him though, was Emma, and the potential for a difficult birth.
Cold wind swept down the foothills, through the open lodge entrance, stirring the night fire into long flames that danced in the strong breeze. Leaning over, Josiah tied the opening shut, reclined and checked the woman beside him. After a difficult night of aches and not being able to get comfortable on the buffalo robes, she had at last fallen asleep. Mary lay curled next to Cora, both taking their rest so soundly, that when Will whispered to Josiah from across the fire pit, they didn’t stir. Not even Emma budged a muscle.
“Can’t sleep?” asked Will, folding an arm beneath his head after smiling at the woman beside him. “Reckon I know what’s keeping you awake. Emma’s getting close to her time, isn’t she?”
“She is.” Josiah pulled a blanket over Emma’s shoulder, tucked her in to keep in the warmth. “I’d appreciate yer prayers in the matter.”
Will grinned. “You’ve had them for some time now.” George groaned in his sleep, yawned, turned on his other side then fell into a faint snore. The men smiled at each other, and left off talking so the others could rest.
How long Josiah had been asleep before he felt the shove against his chest, he couldn’t reckon. He only knew that when he opened his eyes, Emma was breathing hard.
“Why?” asked Josiah. “Is it time?”
“I don’t know.” Emma gasped, doubled on her side and gripped the buffalo robe beneath her. “Just wake her!”
Throwing aside the blanket, Josiah stared at Emma. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think straight or even remember to be brave. Facing down trouble with nothing but bare hands and the will to survive, didn’t move him to fear. Wrestling with a grizzly didn’t even strike as much dread in him, as seeing Emma writhe in pain. His hands felt damp, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Helpless as a day old cub, Josiah called to his mother. “You’d best wake up, Ma. Emma’s calling fer you.”
A snore caught in Will’s throat as Cora sat up, then shook her husband awake. “Take your beds outside,” she instructed Will. “George, get up.” She kicked at the young man’s foot and he woke with a protest. When George saw Emma’s pale face and measured breathing, his eyes grew wide like two harvest moons. “Help Will take the beds outside,” Cora told him. He nodded his head, agreeing even though Josiah knew he wasn’t fully awake yet.
Everything felt like a dream.
Mary crawled about, collecting bedding, and then pushing it through the entrance. Grandpap, George, and Will managed to get outside without disturbing Emma, and then, to Josiah’s surprise, Cora waited for him to go, as well.
“I’m staying, Ma.”
“You are not needed here. Leave Emma to me.”
Josiah had an arsenal of argument left in him, objections and plain old insistence that he would stay. He was about to unleash them on his ma, when Grandpap’s urgent voice traveled through the walls of the lodge.
“Someone has made a camp near us.”
Kicking off the last of the blankets, Josiah paused to kiss Emma before snatching the flintlock and rushing outside. “I’ll be praying fer you, Em. You want me, you just holler and I’ll come running.”
“Go,” she said, gasping for breath before giving him a brave smile. The pains weren’t strong yet, and she still had the presence of mind to offer him comfort. “I’m fine, Josiah.”
He flashed her a grin, then ducked out of the lodge.
“Over there,” said Will, pointing to a spot of light in the distance. “Someone’s keeping a warm camp, tonight. Reckon they think they’re alone. Our lodge is tucked behind this foothill, so they can’t see our fire.”
“Who are they?” In the darkness, Josiah could hear the frightened caution in George’s voice. For all the boy’s growing up, he still had a way to go before he was as seasoned as Josiah or Will.
“I ain’t sure, but I aim to find out. Mary, stay with Will. George, you and I are going to pay that camp a visit.” Josiah knew Will wanted to protest, but with that wooden leg, he would do more good keeping an eye on the women than trying to stumble about in the dark. A sharp groan came from inside the lodge, and Josiah heard Emma ask God for strength. Josiah felt weak. Then something moved between him and the distant fire, and Josiah’s attention snapped into focus.
With a raise of Josiah’s hand, he signaled George to follow.
Stars shot across the darkness overhead, and dry unseen grass crunched beneath his moccasins. The faint cry of a woman sounded behind him, lending Josiah more resolve to find out who these unexpected neighbors were. If they were enemies, he wanted to find out before getting a surprise night visit of their own.
Crouched in the blackness, with only the moon for light, Josiah could see the dark outline of George’s silhouette against the sky. Careful to maintain his stealth, Josiah edged closer to the encampment. At first he had thought this might be a brigade of trappers, but the closer he came, he realized the skins these people wore were distinctly Indian. More than that, they were distinctly Blackfoot. Two men, a woman, and a child lay in bundled buffalo hides, their faces gaunt from want of food.
Without warning, one of the men shoved the butt end of his rifle against his shoulder and aimed it at Josiah. He hadn’t been asleep after all, and Josiah suddenly wondered if he hadn’t led George into a trap. His eyes darted about the camp, trying to make out the presence of more men with weapons; Josiah half expected to see them rushing forward, ready to take him and George. But Josiah saw no one, just the people crowded by the fire and the man with his rifle aimed at Josiah.
“We mean you no harm,” Josiah said in Blackfoot. He motioned to George, indicating his friend’s presence so as not to take the startled Blackfoot by surprise. The sound of his voice woke the second man and the woman, though the child remained motionless.
“Something’s not right,” said Josiah, as George came to his side, rifle at the ready. “Look at them, George. Look at their faces. They’re scared stiff.”
“We surprised them,” said George, by way of an explanation.
The three Blackfoot said nothing, but their eyes held dim terror. They made no invitation to come join them at the fire, no offers to trade or discuss where the buffalo were grazing. They seemed intent on keeping their distance from Josiah and George, but not simply from fear of strangers. Blackfoot were too proud, too much the warrior to display such weakness.
The second man struggled to his feet, wavered a little as he stood, then picked up his rifle. He kept the barrel pointed at the ground– either as a show of bravery, or out from a lack of physical strength.
“We come as friends,” Josiah said in their common tongue. “We saw the fire, and came to see who you were.”
The slack look of futility in the once proud warrior’s face stunned Josiah. He stumbled, fell to his knees and stared helplessly at the child. It was the look of a father, unable to do anything more for one of his own flesh– a look Josiah not only recognized, but also felt. With Emma struggling back there in the lodge, his heart beat in sympathy for the man.
In a show of defeat, the first man dropped his rifle, and the woman closed her eyes. It was as though they were surrendering to the inevitable.
“Do you need food?” asked Josiah. “Stay where yer at, George,” he added in English, halting the young man from moving any closer. “Go back to our camp and get half of our pemmican.”
Even though George clearly wanted to ask questions, he did as Josiah asked.
At last, the child moved, and the watching father slumped in a look of utter desperation.
“Is the girl sick?” asked Josiah.
The man turned to stare at him, but still said nothing.
Before long, George returned with the food. “What do you think is wrong with them?” he asked, handing a leather bag over to Josiah.
“I’d say they’re starving to death.” Josiah looked at George, saw the shock register. “I don’t know why, but from the looks of them, they haven’t eaten in a mighty long time.” Josiah tossed the bag to the father. The man made no move to touch it, then, with great reluctance, he opened it but with such wariness as astonished Josiah. Surely, he could smell the food.
One by one, the pemmican was passed about the camp, until even the child had roused enough to hungrily munch Cora’s dried meat.
“How’s Emma doing?” asked Josiah.
George groaned in self-reproach. “I don’t know. I was in such a hurry to get the pemmican, I forgot to ask.”
Biting back his impatience, Josiah squatted to watch the Blackfoot. He couldn’t leave– not yet. George did likewise, only he sat direct on the ground, getting his britches wet from the dew.
The father pushed himself up, approached Josiah as though he would speak to him. Josiah did likewise, though he noticed the man would not come any closer than several feet.
“Water?” asked the man, his voice shaky, uneven.
Josiah turned to George. “Go fetch some water. And this time, ask about Emma.”
Eager to obey, George raced off, leaving Josiah and the thin Blackfoot to stare at each other in silence.
“Show your hands,” the man said finally. Then he proceeded to inspect not only Josiah’s hands, but also his face. And all from a distance.
The pain was worse than anything Emma had ever felt before, or even thought a human capable of feeling. Surely, the human race had not come from this– this indescribable pain that wrapped around her like a clenched fist. If all women had the same experience bringing children into the world, surely there would be fewer people in it.
Pain filled Emma’s senses, another contraction took hold and she forced herself not to scream.
A cloth pressed against the perspiration on Emma’s face. She thanked Cora for the kindness. Considering the pain, Emma thought she was handling things fairly well. When she voiced this to Cora, the woman smiled.
“It will get stronger.”
“It will?” Emma wondered how it could possibly get any worse, when the force of another contraction squeezed her body into a wrenching tightness. Shouldn’t Cora be preparing to receive the baby? Weakening with fatigue, Emma attempted to raise her knees and begin pushing to get the process over with, when Cora stopped her with a firm hand.
“This is only the start,” warned Cora.
Emma’s heart sank. She had been afraid of that. Her eyes drifted to Mary, sitting cross-legged at Cora’s side. “Send Mary outside. I don’t want to frighten her.”
“This is good for her to see,” said Cora, dabbing Emma’s face with the cloth. “It is good for her to learn early, but if you wish, I will send her outside with Will.”
Confused, Emma dropped her protest. Perhaps Blackfoot had customs of their own, or perhaps Cora had made one of her usual practical decisions; perhaps Cora was right and Mary should be there to learn how to help. Another wave of pain took hold, and all rational thought gave way to a surge of panic.
If this was only the start, Emma realized she must calm down. She must save her strength for later. Forcing down the fear, Emma willed herself to relax, reminded herself to trust in God’s mercy and remember the Bible promises she had memorized for this occasion.
Voices sounded outside the lodge, then George scrambled inside. “Do we have any water to spare?” he asked, looking first to Emma, then seeing her distress, directing the question to Cora. “They could really use some water.”
“They?” Cora arched a brow.
“They– the ones we gave the pemmican to. Do we have any water?”
As Cora gave George an animal skin bulging with fresh water, Mary crawled to look out the entrance but remained inside. Emma’s own curiosity was quickly forgotten when a new contraction squeezed her sides. She gulped in air, gripped the buffalo robe and moaned. George’s eyes grew wide with alarm, but before he could panic, Cora sent him away with a promise to leave them alone.
Breath came easier now, and Emma thanked God for the strength to see this through. True, she had wavered at first, but now that she was getting some experience in dealing with the pain, she felt it manageable, and nothing to overreact about.
The struggling went back and forth, on and on, until Cora sat Emma up, placed a tightly waded bundle of furs before Emma, then told her to get on her knees and lean forward.
“What’s happening?” asked Emma, as Cora proceeded to look under the leather gown Emma had been wearing on the trail. Then Emma felt it, the unsettling wetness running down the inside of her thighs. The pain grew worse, the tightness unbearable. She screamed, clutched Cora’s arm and begged for Josiah.
Jumping to her feet, Mary ran off– Emma prayed, to go find him. Urgent voices came from outside the lodge, but Emma didn’t care who they belonged to, as long as it meant Josiah was coming.
“Make this go quickly, God. Please!” Emma sucked in a breath, held it, then let it out as the contraction weakened. She closed her eyes, relishing the few moments of peace between the pains; it came again, and Emma cried out. “Where is Josiah? Where ishe?”
“You must breathe,” said Cora, her voice firm, and without panic. She rubbed Emma’s back, helping to ease the tightness for just a moment. Emma leaned forward, and more fluid ran down her legs. Emma worried that if this didn’t end soon, she would run out of strength and pass out.
Someone started wailing in the distance, intruding on Emma’s misery with plaintive tones that rose and fell in a repetitive chant. It sounded of grief, heartbreak, and rending despair. The wailing prompted a serious look from Cora; she turned her head to look at the entrance, though Emma knew Cora couldn’t possibly see anything unless she left the birthing.
“What is it?” asked Emma. Pain crashed in around Emma, swallowing her in a terrible scream that drowned out the wails. She doubled forward and put her weight on the bundle.
“Daughter.” Cora squeezed Emma shoulders. “Remain strong and the baby will come soon.”
“Oh, I pray–” Emma’s wish was cut short as another wave of contractions grabbed her with more intensity than before.
Something moved through the entrance, but Emma didn’t care. She bore down on the contraction, knowing that this time, she had to push. Her head threw back, and a cry surged from her lungs.
“Push, Em,” a deep voice coaxed her. “The baby’s coming.”
Ignoring the speaker who seemed so intent on getting in her way, Emma bore down and pushed for everything she was worth. A strong arm braced her as another contraction forced her to push yet again.
“Yer doing good. Keep going, Em. Don’t stop.”
In the great flood of pain, Emma realized Josiah was at her side. She gripped his hunting shirt.
“When will it be over?” she asked. Before he could answer, Cora gave the command to push. Emma felt Cora’s hand between her legs, and with that sensation, came the awareness that something was indeed, being pushed out of her and into the world. She hoped it was a baby.
The chanting outside had grown louder, just barely squeezing through Emma’s already crowded senses. Cora commanded her to push, just one more push, and Emma screamed to obey.
Then Cora scooped something up, and Emma fell forward into Josiah’s arm.
“Is it over?” asked Emma, her voice only a whisper. She tried to turn and see what Cora held, but didn’t have the strength. With great tenderness, Josiah lowered Emma onto the buffalo robes. “Where’s my baby?” Emma clenched Josiah’s shirt, not releasing him when he tried to pull away. “Why isn’t the baby crying?”
Josiah kept looking at his mother. “I don’t know, Em.”
A slap of skin against skin sounded in Emma’s ears, then a tiny cough, followed by tiny, tenacious cries that sent unspeakable relief into Emma’s soul.
“It’s all right,” said Josiah, easing Emma’s hand from his shirt. “The babe’s all right, Emma.”
Dizzy with gratitude, Emma closed her eyes. “I want my baby,” she murmured, amazed she had any strength left to make the request. To her dismay, Josiah and Cora didn’t comply. They raised her arms, pulled the deerskin gown over her head, then covered her with a thick blanket.
“My baby,” whispered Emma. The blanket moved back, then something lifted onto her chest. It felt unbelievably small, writhing at first, then calming as its skin came into contact with hers. The blanket came up again, covering them both in warmth. Emma opened her eyes. A tiny crown of thick black hair greeted her. Her baby. Her precious, long awaited baby had finally come. Weariness overcome by sheer joy, Emma lifted her hand to touch the head, caress the wrinkled face, and marvel at this new life that had begun with her and Josiah. The feelings were powerful, unlike any force she had ever experienced.
“Ain’t it a wonder, Em?” Josiah crouched over her, his eyes caressing the newborn in utter delight.
Weakness took hold of Emma, and she found herself unable to respond with anything but a smile. She lacked the strength to move the baby, but Cora seemed to understand and positioned the infant so it could begin nursing.
“It is a boy,” said Cora, when Emma’s eyes met hers and the unspoken question passed between them. “He is in good health.”
“Thank You, God.” Emma breathed the words in a faint prayer, hugged the precious bundle to her chest and then fell asleep.
When Emma’s eyes opened, she found her son still on her chest, cuddled against her under the warm blanket. The smell of cooking food filled the air, making Emma realize just how hungry she had become.
“Are you needing a trip outside, Emma?” Josiah rolled onto his side, touched the infant’s head with a gentle caress. “Would you look at that– he’s still sleeping. I reckon he’s tuckered out from all that pushing.”
“Where is Mary?” Emma struggled to sit up, and Josiah hurried to place something behind her to support her back. Emma’s eyes caught the girl by the fire pit, occupied by George and the law book open on his knee. Motherhood sharpened Emma’s instincts, and she had the uncontrollable need to hug Mary.
“Yer looking weak,” Josiah moved himself into Emma’s view.
Not knowing whether to ask for Mary or for food, Emma reveled in the love that swarmed around her as the infant began to cry. She cradled it in her arms, brought it to her breast, tucked the blanket around her son to keep out the cool air. Her son. Emma felt so happy she could faint.
“You need this,” said Josiah, pressing a warm cup into her hand. Without looking to see what it was, Emma sipped its contents. She sighed as the beautiful warmth spread throughout her. Broth. Wonderful venison broth.
“It comes with compliments from George,” grinned Josiah. “He and Mary went hunting this morning, and low and behold, he shot himself a deer. Ma and Mary helped him skin the animal, then he gave them Blackfoot half his kill.”
“Blackfoot?” Emma must be weaker than she had supposed. Nothing made sense. Her eyes focused on the entrance, to the retreating daylight leaving the sky. Shouldn’t it be morning? Confused, she looked to Josiah for help.
“You were in labor half the night and most of the day,” said Josiah, touching Emma’s face with a calloused finger. “There’s some Blackfoot camping nearby, but there ain’t anything to be concerned about. They aren’t of ma’s clan, so me and George is safe.”
The baby moved, and Emma clutched it with an ever growing love that engulfed her. Instincts Emma had only thought she had, came to the surface in a tide of motherly affection. She wanted to hug Mary, touch the infant… get more sleep. But the food had to come first. She sipped the comforting broth, enjoyed the closeness of her family and quietly thanked God over and over. Truly, He was good.
“Are you feeling well enough to listen, Emma?” Josiah sat cross legged beside her, and for the first time she noticed the heavy weariness in his features. His handsome mouth crooked in a smile, and he leaned forward to touch a kiss to her forehead. “I love you so much, Emma– you and the children– I know I’d die if anything ever happened to you.”
“What’s wrong, Josiah? Why did I hear chanting last night? Was that Grandpap?”
“Yes, it was him. He and them other Blackfoot are in mourning. Truth be told, we all are. There’s some bad news, Em, but afore you go and get yerself anxious, we’re fine. Nobody’s hurt, and the baby’s healthy. You just keep remembering that.”
The cup trembled as she drank the last bit of broth; he reached out, steadied her as she set the cup down.
“I’m ready,” she said.
Taking a deep breath, Josiah let it out in a long sigh. “There’s trouble on the upper Missouri. Them Blackfoot outside heard news from other tribes that the Rotting Face has returned.”
“‘Rotting Face’? I don’t understand.”
“That’s what the Indians call it– Rotting Face, but I reckon yer kind know it as smallpox.”
At the mere mention of the nightmarish word, Emma covered her mouth in horror.
Josiah’s chin pointed at the entrance. “People are falling by the score, and them Blackfoot are running fer their lives.”
Emma knew about smallpox, or at least thought she did. There had been periodic outbreaks back East, ever since she could remember; her grandfather– Major Jacob Perkins– who had fought in the American Revolutionary War against the British for independence, had survived many a fierce battle, only to almost die in bed of the fearsome disease. Emma knew stories, of family and of others, who had lived or died of smallpox; even so, her own life had been virtually untouched, so her experience was limited.
“This ain’t the first time my people…” Josiah’s voice broke. Emma touched his hand, and he brought her fingers to his lips and kissed them. “My people have endured Rotting Face before. Twice before, so far as Grandpap can recollect. The last time was like a visit from hell. Grandpap watched kinfolk and friends die around him, their death so painful and slow that some of them killed their children and then themselves, instead of watching their loved ones swell with the oozing blisters. And now it’s happening all over again, and Grandpap is anxious that we should leave. He wants to head fer the Oregon Country as soon as we can.”
“You can’t run from the epidemic forever, Josiah. Not if it’s a large outbreak.”
“Indians die quicker than the whites, and as fer as I know, most of the Blackfoot who get it, dies.”
“Then it will only be the mercy of God that will save us from such a fate,” said Emma, rallying her courage as well as her strength. “God delivered me in childbirth, and He delivered your daughter, mother, and grandfather so they are with us, instead of with the others in the upper Missouri where all this is going on. I can’t believe God has gone to so much trouble with us, only to wipe us out. It reminds me of a passage in the Book of Judges: ‘If the LORD were pleased to kill us, He would not have received a burnt offering and a meat offering at our hands, neither would He have showed us all these things.’ He’s showed us a lot, Josiah. We have every reason to remain hopeful.”
A grim smile tugged at a corner of his mouth. “Leave it to you to shed sunlight where there ain’t any.”
She leaned against him, sighed when he wrapped an arm about her shoulders. They peered into the tiny face that reminded Emma so much of Josiah. This boy had sturdy lungs, and a strong grip that wouldn’t stop.
Seeing they were awake, and after getting permission from Josiah to finally come for a closer look, Mary came to visit the baby. Emma took the infant from under the blanket, wrapped it in another to keep it warm, then delicately placed the boy in Mary’s careful arms.
“Is he my brother?” asked Mary, her voice full of wonder. “Can I name him, ma? Can I?”
“I believe it’s customary fer the parents to git that honor,” said Josiah, hugging a blanketed Emma close. “What about it, Emma? What are we going to call him?”
Having set aside the law book, George came to marvel at the baby. “Josiah, he sure takes after you,” remarked George, letting the boy grasp his finger and hang on. “Would you look at all that hair!”
Josiah peered down at Emma, and she snuggled into his shirt even more. If it were possible, Emma would have crawled inside Josiah and closed her eyes to sleep in his safe warmth. “What was yer pa’s name, Emma?”
She blinked. “Jefferson. Why do you ask?”
“Let’s name him after yer pa.”
“But what about yours? It’s not fair to give all that honor to just one man.”
“My pa doesn’t deserve such honor,” said Josiah, looking back at the baby in Mary’s arms. “Yer pa was a good man. I know that, because he and yer ma raised up a good woman.” He squeezed Emma. “I want to name him Jefferson.”
Cora came through the entrance just then, followed by Will.
“Well, well, the new mother is awake!” said Will, hobbling on his leg to sit down by the fire. “That’s a strapping boy you’ve got, Josiah! What do you think of him, Mary?”
“He’s wonderful!” said Mary, hugging the baby so tight both Emma and Cora cautioned her at the same time to do it gently.
“Decided on a name yet?” Will eyed Emma and Josiah with such persistence, Emma felt the need to make up her mind. “We’ve decided on Jefferson Brown.”
“Has a nice ring to it,” smiled Will, as Grandpap came through the entrance.
The old man looked distant, as though his thoughts were far off, and not here with everyone else in the lodge. He sat down, was about to draw out his pipe, when Emma offered to let him hold the baby. In such overwhelming grief as he must be feeling, Emma expected him to turn down the offer. But he put away the pipe, held out his arms as Mary lowered the boy down to him.
Emma held back advice about how to hold the infant, for Grandpap seemed to know what he was doing. He cradled the boy in the crook of his arm, combed the thick head of hair with his free hand and stared at Jefferson through ancient eyes. Emma wondered what he saw, what he thought. It didn’t escape her, that while they were here, celebrating a new life, death was taking untold numbers to the grave.
Cora said something in Blackfoot to her father. Grandpap sighed, then nodded in agreement.
“What did she say?” asked Emma.
Smiling, Josiah planted a kiss on top of Emma’s head. “Ma said that where there is life, there is hope.”
Hope. Emma prayed she would always remember that word, and where true hope came from. Life spread before them a challenging picture, but then, when had life ever promised to be easy? Her pa had settled on the edge of the wilderness to become a wheelwright, back when Indiana had yet to find statehood, and he had proved that the Perkins came from sturdy stock. The Perkins had come from England, and Emma’s mother’s family hailed from Germany. Little Mary had the American blood of her Blackfoot ancestry, mingled with the frontiersman that came from Josiah. And now this baby, Little Jefferson, had a blend of them all. Hope. Emma had plenty of it. Her family– every single blessed one of them– had been selected by God, and this Oregon Country, the land where they would settle, would be their new home.
Where the past and the present separated, Emma had difficulty determining. She only knew that the future held promise. A promise given by God, to be waited upon, much as a baby awaits to be born.
“Lord, protect us,” prayed Josiah, as everyone gathered hands in the hide lodge to offer up thanks to Heaven, “give us health to live long lives, give us wisdom to live them wisely, and give us courage to live them well.”
The baby cried in Grandpap’s arms, and the old man rocked Jefferson back and forth, speaking to the boy in hushed Blackfoot until Jefferson quieted and went to sleep. This baby signified hope to everyone, and in those quiet moments of watching Grandpap hold his great-grandchild, Emma knew the old man had been comforted.