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Proudly, Josiah opened his mouth to answer, but Emma saw him quickly shut it again, as though searching for something else to say.

"I killed me a griz," he finally said, weaving the leather through the webbing on his snowshoe. When the girls weren't properly impressed, he went on. "I killed him after he tore off half my scalp. Meanest animal I ever come across."

"What happened?" asked Mary.

"I was trapping beaver with my friend, Pierre, in the Green River Valley, when we lost our horses to some thieving Crows. We were left high and dry without food nor ponies, and not a rifle between us."

Mary's eyes grew wide. "What did you do?"

"Pierre and I began walking to the nearest trading post, when we come across the biggest, meanest, old griz I ever laid my eyes on. Pierre started mumbling prayers, saying we was dead men, but I weren't ready to give up the ghost so quick. When that griz started galloping at us on all fours, I knew it weren't no use trying to outrun him, so I grabbed my knife and stood my ground."

Emma eyed Josiah skeptically. She felt he was just spinning this tall tale to amuse Mary.

"He took me down, and with his great jaws, ripped back my scalp. While we was wrestling, I managed to lodge my knife in his heart, and after that, it didn't take him much longer to die."

Mary looked a little doubting, but when Josiah nodded that it was so, she grinned proudly.

"That's right, yer pa killed that old griz. Afterward, I put an eagle feather in my hair so all would know I wasn't a man to tangle with lightly."

"What was Pierre doing all this time?" asked Emma.

Scowling at his wife, Josiah continued on about his exploits while his hands kept busy weaving snowshoes.

Emma didn't like the fact she believed Josiah was telling a falsehood, but something else bothered her even more-- that long pause he had given before telling his fantastic story. She had the distinct impression a bear had nothing to do with why Josiah wore that eagle feather in his hair.

By the end of the day, Mary had quite forgotten her sewing lesson, having spent her time watching Josiah and listening to his stories. All of them were entertaining, though Emma doubted their truthfulness, for some were simply so far-fetched, she thought it impossible he could be telling the truth.

After supper, when Emma had managed to get a rather rambunctious Mary to sleep, Emma rested on the buffalo robes next to Josiah. He seemed thoughtfully quiet, and in no hurry to be the first to speak.

"Josiah? Why do you really wear that eagle feather?"

The trapper turned his head to look at Emma, silently regarding her face before answering. "Reckon it's best if I don't say. I'd be a fool to give you more cause to dislike me."

"Does it have to do with a woman?"

Gazing into Emma's brown eyes, Josiah groaned softly. "I can't hold nothing back from you, can I?"

"Did you love her?"

"No." Josiah's answer came so readily, Emma knew it was the truth. "She was my first whore, Emma. That's all."

Closing her eyes, Emma felt Josiah take her into his arms. When she stiffened, he held her even tighter. "I shouldn't have told you. Now you're angry."

The eagle feather dangled in Emma's face, and she turned in Josiah's arms to get away from that blatant reminder of his past.

"Emma," Josiah gently spoke her name, love permeating his deep voice. Taking Emma's hand, Josiah guided it to the eagle feather and then closed her fingers around the offending object. "I don't want it anymore, Emma. Take it. From now on, the only one I'll wear in my hair is you."

Tearfully, Emma pulled the feather from Josiah's hair. She would have rather chosen to believe the grizzly story, than to think he had placed so much brazen pride in something so shameful.

Josiah drew Emma closer, letting her face dry against his hunting shirt. "I wouldn't do this for any woman but you," he said in a hushed voice.

Emma tenaciously clung to Josiah's love, squeezing every drop of affection she could from his tender words. He loved her enough to give up his trophy, and Emma comforted herself with that thought.

When morning came, Josiah began working the bearskin into an actual coat. It was crudely done, and not at all a finished garment like Emma's soft deerskin dress, or even Josiah's own buckskins, but the coat would work well to protect him from the winter.

As Josiah worked, Mary watched nearby, asking questions whenever she could. For once, Josiah didn't seem to mind the interruptions until Emma stopped him as he was about to begin a story.

"Josiah, I would appreciate it if you didn't fill Mary's head with fantastic yarns that never happened. I'm trying to teach her the truth-- not fables passed off as the truth."

"You don't believe me, Emma? My own wife?"

Emma could hear the playfulness in Josiah's voice, and she struggled not to dissolve under the influence of his sweet-talk.

"You know what I mean, Josiah. Very little of what you told Mary yesterday, was the truth."

"I'll admit to flavoring the facts, but the particulars were true enough."

"Come now, Josiah, you never had your scalp ripped off by a grizzly. Admit it."

Setting aside the bearskin, Josiah pulled back his long hair so Emma could see a great ridge of a scar that ran from behind his right ear all the way to the front of his hairline. Emma wondered she had never noticed it before now, but then again, Josiah's body was full of old scars.

"What about your friend, Pierre?" Emma asked incredulously. "What was he doing while you were being mauled?"

Letting his hair down, Josiah shrugged. "He was clawed when he tried to get the griz off me. After the bear took my scalp, Pierre sewed it back on afore he died."

Swallowing hard, Emma felt a little lightheaded.

Josiah stared at her skeptically. "You ain't going to swoon, are you?"

"That was a little more detailed than I expected."

"It's the truth."

"Those other stories... you didn't make them up?"

"Only here and there," he shrugged. "There's no harm in stretching things to make a good story."

"As long as you don't try to pass it off as the truth," Emma looked at him sturdily, and Josiah knew he had met his match.

"All right, Emma, have it yer way." Josiah picked up a sharp awl to puncture holes in the bearskin to make room for the seams. Grinning, he winked at Mary. "I do believe Pierre would be alive this very day, if your ma had been there, Mary. Why, that old griz wouldn't have stood a chance against Emma!"

Mary giggled and Josiah flashed Emma a broad grin. Then his grin slowly faded, and Emma guessed he was remembering his friend. This was a hard wilderness filled with hard people, and Emma no longer wondered at Josiah's roughness. A man would need to be anchored to something greater than himself, to not let these rugged mountains change his soul for the worse. She knew Josiah did not have that anchor, and she longed for him to posses that steadfast hope.

"Lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast."
~ Hebrews 6:18, 19 ~

end of chapter
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