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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Dave Free on 18 January 2007 - 7:01pm.

Chapter 18

It was late in the evening when Annie and Steve completed the weighing and returned to their tents.

“Thanks for your help Annie.” Steve said, “You better get some sleep. I’m going to take these scales back over to the captain.”

“You are most welcome Elder. I must admit I actually found myself enjoying the effort.”

Steve smiled. “Yeah me too. It’s amazing what you can get a kick out of around here. Anyway, I couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks for saving me on the names and stuff.”

“It was my pleasure. Have a good night.” She turned and headed for her tent and Steve picked up the scales and made his way through the tent city to the captain’s tent. Most of the pioneers had turned in for the night but a few fires were still burning. Here and there Steve caught the face of someone he had met that day weighing and waved or called out a hushed “good night!”

The captain was sitting in front of his fire apparently deep in thought when Steve approached. Steve put the scale back in the wagon. Despite the clanking the captain didn’t budge. Steve moved closer to him and tried clearing his throat. Still no response. Finally, in a slightly exaggerated tone, Steve said, “Excuse me sir, we’ve finished the weighing!”

“What’s that? Oh, I’m sorry Elder. I didn’t hear you come up. I was just sitting here thinking and must have dozed off.”

“Do you sleep with your eyes open?”

“What’s that? No, were my eyes open? Must have just been thinking too deeply.”

“Well we finished the weighing sir. Annie noted down the weights of all the families in this ledger.” Steve handed the ledger book to the Captain. “She thought it might be useful, in case we ever have to reduce weight again or something.”

The captain took the book and began turning the pages. “Very good. Very good, and excellent penmanship too I must say.” The captain muttered. “And the sisters Elder? Any problems with excess weight?”

“Oh there were a few that had too much weight. Not just sisters, a few of the brethren did too. But they all agreed to either leave it or carry it themselves. We didn’t really have any problems. Brother William didn’t want us to weigh his stuff, but Annie talked him in to it.”

“She did eh? He is a sour one. What did she say to him.”

“Oh, she basically told him I was demented and would have a fit at any moment if he didn’t bring his things out to be weighed.” The captain chuckled and Steve smiled and turned to leave.

“Before you go Elder. Is there anything else you can think of we should be doing?”

“Sir?”

“The spirits of the saints are good Elder. Their muscles have been strengthened. Now the carts are repaired. But I am still concerned about the trip ahead. Can you think of anything else we should be doing to ensure the safety of these good saints?”

Steve thought for a moment. “Speed sir. We don’t want to get caught in a snowstorm. The faster the better.”

The captain must have taken Steve’s suggestion to heart. Over the next few weeks even Steve had a hard time keeping up with the pace that was set. But the captain was right. The saints were strengthened and in general endured it well.

Steve himself didn’t mind the walking, the heat, and even the constant dust, but the food, or lack of it, began to get to him. Less than a pound of flour a day and a half a pound of bacon and three ounces of sugar once a week just weren’t enough. Steve did what he could to supplement his intake by finding berries along the trail, but it still wasn’t enough. He went to sleep most nights hungry and, as he lost weight, was beginning to have a hard time keeping his pants from falling off. Of course he wasn’t alone. All the pioneers received the same rations. It was perhaps hardest on the children who cried with hunger and their parents who could do nothing to help them.

On the fifteenth of August, nineteen days out of Iowa City, the company made it’s way into another small town. The settlers were very friendly and offered water and shade to the saints. The carts Steve was responsible for were near the back of the train that day. They made their way into the settlement after most of the other pioneers had put down their cart handles and refreshed themselves at the community well.

“Hey Elder look! They’ve got a general store here!” Sam came over close to Steve and whispered as he put down his cart handle. “Cool.” Steve said without emotion. “I wonder if they have Slurpees.”

“Food Elder! General stores have food!” Sam hissed.

“Well I don’t know how stores work here, but where I come from you have to have money to get anything from a store and why are you whispering?”

“I’ve got a half dollar piece, Elder!”

“Hold me back! What are we going to do, buy half a candy bar? I’m dying of thirst. I gotta go get a drink. Anybody else coming?” Steve called out and looked around at the other carts, but most of his “people” were way ahead of him and already on their way to the well.

“Elder!” Sam had now raised his voice. “In Iowa city I got four loaves of bread for ten cents!”

“Well what are we waiting for? Let’s get to that store!”

As it turned out, the general store hadn’t planned on nearly six hundred pioneers coming through town that day and was completely out of bread and most everything else. Steve cornered the proprietor.

“What have you got to eat? You must have something left in this store that we can eat!”

“Pretty hungry are ya?” The man drawled casually from behind the counter. “They make y’all pull your own wagons and don’t feed ya enough besides, eh?”

Steve felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, but he was too hungry to let his pride get in the way. Very slowly, but with a determined air he replied, “Sir, do you have any food for sale?”

“No need to get ornery now. I was jest tryin' to be sociable. I got a few strips of dried meat left. Buffalo from last season. How much money ya got?”

Steve could see a con coming on and was about to ask for the price first when Samuel blurted out, “Half a dollar!”

“Well now, ain’t that a coincidence? That’s exactly what I’m sellin' the last of my dried meat for, half a dollar!”

Steve had to restrain himself to keep from reaching over the counter and ringing the greasy operator’s neck but hunger is a powerful force and he did nothing. Samuel seemed undaunted. “We’ll take it!”

“You know,” said the store keeper as he began to dig the dried meat out of a barrel behind the counter, “Sullivan, south of town is lookin’ for some hired help. Payin'’ two dollars a day, plenty of food and a dry barn to sleep in.”

Steve and Samuel were watching the storekeeper put the dried meat onto a piece of paper and then wrap up the edges. They weren’t paying too much attention to what he was saying, but the mention of plenty of food caught their attention.

“What kind of work?” Steve asked as Samuel took the paper wrapped package from the storekeeper and handed over his coin.

“Does it matter, son? You’re lookin’ for food, ain’t yah?”

Steve’s anger rose again. It is one thing to grovel and another thing all together to have some one point out that you are groveling--especially someone as greasy as this character.

“C’mon Sam, let’s get out of this place. I think I’m going to be sick.”

By the time they got out the door, Samuel had the package unwrapped and handed a piece of the nearly black meat to Steve. Steve sat down on the edge of the boardwalk and looked at the meat. Samuel sat down next to him and started gnawing on his piece.

“Umm. Aren’t you going to eat that, Elder?” Sam asked, chewing vigorously on a wad in his mouth.

“I can’t.” Steve replied glumly.

“Why?” Samuel asked, completely perplexed.

“Don’t know. That guy was a jerk, he made me sick.”

Samuel just nodded and started gnawing off a new piece.

“I was ready to do anything for food in there...” Steve trailed off and then asked Samuel suddenly, “You mind if I give this to some of the kids?”

“No, no, go right ahead. Here’s a couple more pieces, I was going to share them around anyway.” Samuel handed the opened paper package to Steve.

“You keep one and share it with your family dude. I’ll give these other two to Aaron and John for their children. Thanks for sharing Sam.” Steve stood up to walk back over to where their carts were parked.

“You’re welcome Elder.” Sam called after him. “I’ll join you in a minute, I’m just going to sit here until I finish.”

Steve found John and Aaron by their carts and handed each of them a strip of the dry meat for their children. They both seemed pleased. Steve told them to thank Samuel when they got a chance then made his way to the well for the long awaited drink. He’d just finished quenching his thirst when John’s bugle called the company to move out again.

By the time the company came to a halt late that afternoon, they had covered better than seventeen miles. Steve was so exhausted he toyed with the idea of having everyone sleep under the stars that night so they wouldn’t have to set up the tents. But a few big thunder heads rumbling in the distance changed his mind. While Samuel, Aaron, and John got the family tent up, Steve helped the single sisters get theirs up.

“Something wrong Elder?” Annie asked as she pulled a tie rope taut while he pounded a wooden stake in the ground with an old hatchet.

“No, I’m fine. Why?”

“Oh you just haven’t said much this afternoon.”

“Thinking, I guess.” Steve gave the stake one more good whack.

“That’s a worthy achievement Elder--the thinking I mean.” Annie smiled as she handed Steve the end of the rope. Steve pulled it tight, wrapped it around the stake, and tied it off.

He smiled back and relaxed a little. “Sam and I bought some dried meat at that store in the town today. It scared me.”

“The meat scared you?”

“No, the fact that I was wiling to do anything to get something to eat.” He walked over to the next tie line and began pounding another stake in the ground. Annie followed.

“I was so hungry that I wasn’t even going to tell anyone we had the meat so there would be more for me. And then that slug of a storekeeper gouged us on the price and I didn’t care, food at any cost. But the worst part is, he mentioned a job in town. Two dollars a day and plenty of food. For a minute I actually considered taking it.”

“What changed your mind?”

Steve stopped pounding and looked up and shook his head. “I got sick. I couldn’t eat the meat or even talk to the storekeeper.” He whacked the stake a few more times and then stopped again. “What if I hadn’t got sick? I’d be just like that hairy guy that sold his birthright for a bowl of oatmeal.”

“You’re here for a reason Elder. The Lord is watching over you.”

“Maybe. But, if I think it out logically, stopping to work for a farmer makes great sense. In fact I think the whole company should do it. Stop and work, wait out the winter and get an early start next spring.”

“Must have been what Brother Arthur and his family thought. They quit today.” Annie interjected matter of factly.

“What?” Steve asked incredulously.

“Brother Arthur and his family stayed in town and went to work. They said they couldn’t take it anymore. Captain Martin tried to talk them in to continuing, but their minds were made up.”

“So why didn’t they get a sick feeling inside?”

“Perhaps they did, but they chose to ignore it.” Annie replied. Steve pounded the final stake home and tied off the line.

“Maybe. Or maybe they’re just plain smarter than all the rest of us.”

“Elder, how can you say that?” Annie was clearly upset. “The Lord has just protected you and you know it. If you are not willing to admit it, then you deserve to be scared!”

“Yeah, you’re right. I admit it. He did protect me and maybe that is what really scares me. I mean, it must be important that I be here, but I have no idea why. What if I never figure it out? Or what if I figure it out, but can’t do it?”

“Then we’ll all die.” Annie said trying to keep a straight face.

“Oh gee, thanks.”

“Elder, He’s gone to all the trouble to get you here and keep you here. When the time is right, you will find out why. I’m sure of it.”

That night Steve had trouble falling asleep. It wasn’t his empty stomach but rather his full and questioning mind that kept him awake.



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