The Nature of Josiah Smith

The heavy snows came in mid October. It was a bit earlier than Josiah had expected, but he believed he was prepared for it. He would have liked to have another elk, or better yet a buffalo, cured or in the ice box. But what he had sequestered from its own life into his should suffice. All the “shoulds” would find their proof now. The last of the game had descended into the valleys or moved out south through the passes into the plains.

Josiah had begun his preparations for this long snoozewith nature four years before in Concord. There he had watched with envy as Hank Thoreau sequestered himself into a cabin on a pond just a short walk from Concord and called himself hermit. Josiah believed, as Thoreau did, that nature would make a better man of a man. But Josiah had nothing but envious contempt for Hank’s retreat into nature.

Sure he had nice stories about ants, cost of nails, and living on the cheap. But his on the cheap included a few pies and a couple of sacks of spuds brought over by friends. In Josiah’s understanding of communion with nature Hank’s little adventure hardly passed the muster. Josiah was intent on testing the real relationship between a man’snature and the nature of the rest of the universe.

With this earnest intent he set about seeking the most isolated place in all the North American Continent, a place that would hide him from civilization and make a natural man of him. First he tried Missouri, but people there thought he was either a Mormon or a Yankee abolitionist, and they had had enough of both. About the only thing Josiah got from Missouri was a way into the heart of Nature. There he had his first brush with the natural man, a fellow by the name of Oliver Clinton Briggers.

Briggers claimed many things about himself. Most of them were lies. But they were lies based on experience. One claim Briggers made was that he singlehandedly destroyed two thirds of the Blackfeet Nation, and that the third that was left had put a fifty plew bounty on his scalp. He told Josiah, “I am headed west to finish the job or lose my hair, it don’t matter much which since one or the other is gonna happen regardless.” This is a near approximation of his statement, for Briggers was drunk at the time and his exaggeration was prone to slurring. Let it be noted that Biggers and thirty two other beaver hunters had in fact been in a fight with a band of Piegans. In this fight Biggers may have killed a warrior named Buffalo Tail Killer. Because this may have been true, and because Piegans as a matter of national principle did not like blue eyed beaver hunters trespassing on their homeland, Briggers’s scalp, in the land of the Piegans, was worth more off his head than on it. But fifty beaver hides was a bit more than Piegans were willing to pay for revenge. They would rather manage that job themselves and and take the payout themselves.

Josiah was not too impressed with the bravado and boasting of the old drunk, but when he asked around for a guide, OC Briggers’s name was pretty high on the list of mountain men who could get him into real nature. And so, Josiah sobered the old liar up and hired him to take him to the where nature is its most basic and natural.

Briggers agreed to do so for an outfit and two dollars a day.

The first surprise was the outfit. Josiah expected that to consist of provisions for about sixty days and an animal to carry them. But the outfit actually consisted of, among other things, two horses, two mules, an iron pan, an iron pot, four pounds of coffee, sixty twists of tobacco, sixteen beaver traps, two fine steel knives about two feet long, two Hawkins rifles and ammunition to last the duration of four wars, two haunches of “weakmeat”, and about 80 pounds of foofaraw. As Briggers patiently explained rifles and ammunition were for filling the pantry, for hunting Blackfeet, and for general safety and security; weak meat was bacon and beef and would only be needed until real meat was put inthe pantry; and foofaraw was blankets, beads, cheap iron knives,hatchets, and other junk to buy company with. “No Arkansa maid in her right mind would cuddle for less than a handful of beads or at least a dull butcher knife.” This is again a paraphrase of Brigger’s actual and rather more naturalistic expression of the worth and worthiness Arkansa maidens.

Josiah was appalled that part of the outfit was obtained for the express purpose of whoredomizing. He was appalled at the paucity of actual provisions.

The journey to the heart of nature took more than the two months Josiah expected. It took all of two years and most of another. In this time OC educated Josiah in the rudiments of filling the pantry with a Hawkins, self defense with a Hawkins, and fighting and sometimes murdering Blackfeet with a Hawkins. Josiah also learned that fooforaw was pretty handy in obtaining a cuddle or two in the mountains. Most of these are things that Josiah would never write in his diary or in his letters home to Hank and the bunch in Concord. He could and did write home about buffalo hunts, the taste of good antelope, and about nearly being mauled to death by a Grizzly bear. But as for the hunting of Indians and tumbling cuddles in mountain meadows, these things did not flow from the tip of any pen. They were nonetheless things that occurred in the nearly three years it took before OC felt comfortable with turning Josiah loose alone in the heart of nature.

And October came with its early snow. 

In January there was a thaw, but not much. We know this from the last few entries in Josiah’s diary.

In the spring OC arrived to see how “the fool’d wintered.” He found an empty cabin with the diary open on the rough log bench to a page dated February 12. The entry was, “The onliest hunt that matters is a man hunt. Going hunting.”

That was the last anyone heard of Josiah. Among the Piegan, other Blackfeet, and Shoshone and early white settlers and miners there were stories of hunters and travlers being stalked, hunted, sometimes killed. Much ofthis was blamed on the likes of a man name Plummer and his gang. But among those who knew, a legend grew of a shadowy hunter in leather rags peering from the darkness, rifle lifting to aim, to do its natural business.

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