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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Dave Free on 18 January 2007 - 7:02pm.

Chapter 19

Through all of the hunger, difficult questions, and longing for home, Steve’s greatest solace came from the many children that were part of the company. The children reminded Steve of little brothers and sisters at home. And, while he never put it to himself in these terms, playing with the children gave him a chance to act like a kid again, something that he dearly missed.

The children weren’t one whit behind in their love for playing with the “Elder.” When parents and energy allowed, they followed Steve like he was the pied piper. While the company rested, they laughed at his jokes and listened to his strange tales about a land where machines fly and children watch moving pictures in a little box.

So it was not too unusual when Martha, a girl of about ten, ran up to Steve as he was helping put the tents up. “Elder! Elder! have you seen Arthur?”

Steve didn’t know Martha very well, but ever since the frog incidence with Maeve he and Arthur had been good “buds.”

“Uh, no. Not since, the afternoon break up on the hill when the storm started. Why?”

“We can’t find him anywhere! Oh Elder, what if the Indians got him?” Martha started to cry.

Steve smiled. “Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about Indians Martha. C’mon we’ll find him, don’t worry.” He left the tent to the others, took Martha by the hand and started through the tent city calling Arthur’s name.

A half hour and hundreds of shouts later there was still no Arthur. Steve was concerned now and headed for the captain’s tent with Martha still in tow. Arthur’s parents had been concerned for some time and were already at the captain’s tent along with several other saints who were aware of the situation. The captain seemed relieved to see Steve and Martha approaching.

“Any luck Elder?” He called as they approached. Steve shook his head and the captain’s relief disappeared. Martha ran to her mother and buried her head in her skirts crying. A number of conversations were going on amongst those gathered. Some were trying to remember when Arthur was last seen, others were guessing his where-abouts, and still others were discussing the possibility of Indians. The captain called for attention.

“Brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters!” He raised his voice for attention and the other conversations ceased. “We’ll never find young Arthur while we stand here talking. We only have two or three more hours of daylight so it is important we get started right now. My understanding is that the last time Arthur was seen was on the hill where we took our afternoon break. Has anyone seen him since then?” No one answered.

“He must have been left when the storm came up and we all rushed off.” The captain concluded. Young Martha raised a sob to accentuate the captain’s statement. Her mom comforted her and Captain Martin continued. “That hill is no more than a mile or two back. We can be there in half an hour, if we hurry. We’ll then spread out and search from there. Tent captains, I want every able bodied saint searching for that boy. Please have them on the trail in five minutes.”

Steve approached Arthur’s parents as the others ran off to spread the word. He didn’t know quite what to say, but was determined to say something. “I’m, I’m really sorry.” He said quietly.

“Arthur was right there with the rest of us on the hill. I didn’t even think to turn around and look when the storm started and everyone ran for their carts. I just assumed everyone was with their families. I didn’t know.”

“Elder it is not your fault.” Arthur’s mom reached out and took Steve by the hand. “We too assumed that Arthur was with the company and didn’t look back. Right now the most important thing is that we find him--and we will Elder, we will. Go on, join the others and bring back my boy.” She patted the back of Steve’s hand and then turned to her husband to say goodbye.

Steve didn’t wait around but ran quickly back to the site of his two tents to gather other volunteers. News had already reached the tents and John, Aaron, Samuel and Robert were already on the trail. Annie, Elizabeth, and Lydia were just getting ready to go. Steve was in no mood for conversation or a slow walk, so he said his goodbyes and hit the trail on his own at slightly more than a jog. He was pleased to see the number of saints heading back up the trail to join the search, but didn’t waste any time with pleasantries and just kept running. Within a few minutes, there was no one on the trail in front of him and he was free to wallow in his thoughts.

If he could just have one minute back. Not even one minute, if he could just have one second back. All he had to do was turn around and look. In his mind he could see exactly where Arthur had been laying. He could picture the rock, the weeds growing up around it, and Arthur laying across the top of it. Just one second, and Arthur would be in camp now, rather than who knows where. Where ever he was, Steve hoped that he would just sit still and wait for the others to find him. The storm had been a real down pour and any footprints that might have been visible in the sand and dust would surely have been obliterated by now.

Adrenalin made up for Steve’s lack of nutrition and rest. Within fifteen minutes he was back at the hill. There was no sign of Arthur. Steve collapsed on the rock where he was sure Arthur had been laying the last time he saw him. “Where would I go from here if I was a six year old boy?” He gasped out loud to himself. “I’d go to the trail, wouldn’t I? But what if it was raining? What if I fell asleep and when I woke up it was raining and nobody else was around? I’d look for cover. Trees maybe.” Steve stood and turned three hundred and sixty degrees scanning the horizon. “There!” He started down the hill at a trot towards a grove of trees visible in the distance. The other searchers were now beginning to arrive at the hill. Steve yelled to them without breaking stride.

“Tell the captain Arthur was laying on that bolder when I last saw him! I’m going to search in the trees to the north!” Without waiting for an answer, he picked up his pace and continued down the hill.

“Elder, wait! I’m coming with you!” Steve looked over his shoulder to see Samuel struggling to catch up with him. He eased up a little and allowed Samuel to catch up but didn’t say anything till they reached the trees.

“You head through the trees on this side of the ravine. I’ll go over to the other side and stay parallel with you. Look for any signs that some one has been here recently--broken twigs, turned over rocks, anything.” Steve was still gasping for air and the effort of speaking brought on a completely unexpected coughing fit which ended with the dry heaves. Steve doubled over with his hands on his knees, his whole body convulsed with the wrenching coughs.

Samuel put his hand on Steve’s back but didn’t say anything until Steve was done. “You better slow down Elder. You’re going to kill yourself.”

“I just as well be dead if we don’t find this poor kid, Sam. We’ve got to find him. Give me a few minutes to get to the other side of the ravine, then we’ll start through the trees together.” Steve’s body refused to run for a while, so he settled for a fast walk.

The trees grew along both sides of a rather steep ravine that started near the base of the hill where the company had rested. Rather than go down through the ravine and back up the other side, Steve circled back around the head of it until he came parallel to where Samuel had been waiting. He gave the signal and they both headed into the trees following the general course of the ravine.

“Arthur! Arthur!” Both Steve and Samuel shouted regularly at the top of their lungs. But their was no response and no sign that anyone had passed through the trees before them. They continued on until they began to run out of light. There were a number of deadfalls and few trails through the trees which made the going very slow and difficult in full day light, impossible in darkness. Samuel was the first to admit the fact and called across the ravine to Steve.

“Hey, Elder! We better head back before it gets any darker or we’ll be lost too!”

Steve dreaded the words but knew that Samuel was right. He made his way over to the lip of the ravine. “OK, you’re right. Why don’t we walk back up the bottom of the ravine? The going looks a little easier. Maybe he fell down there or is sleeping under an overhang or something.”

“Sounds good to me.” Samuel started skidding down the steep side towards the bottom of the ravine. Steve did the same from his side. There was a small flow of water in the bottom. Steve couldn’t tell if it always ran or just when it rained. It was clear that it had run much higher in the very recent past. The going was much easier up the bottom of the ravine, but by the time they reached the head there was still no sign of Arthur.

Samuel tried to cheer Steve up as they made their way out of the ravine and on towards the hill. “Maybe the others found him Elder. He couldn’t have gone far. He probably just walked the wrong way back up the trail.”

“I hope you’re right Sam. I hope you’re right.” But Sam wasn’t right. The glum faces that they found on the hill told the story without words. The sun had been down for nearly a half an hour and the last of the light was disappearing to the west.

“We can’t do anything more in the dark.” The captain was saying as they arrived. “We’ll end up with more lost than found. Let’s go get some sleep and we’ll start the search in the morning.” Most nodded and slowly began moving down the hill toward the trail and camp. Arthur’s dad objected.

“I can’t sleep knowing that my son is out there Captain. I believe I’ll stay right here in case he returns.” The captain hesitated, seemingly unsure how to respond. Steve cut in before he could.

“I couldn’t sleep either. I’ll stay with you if you don’t mind.”

Arthur’s dad nodded his head and the Captain gave his approval. “Alright. But I don’t suggest that either of you wander off by yourself in the dark. A broken leg won’t do Arthur any good.”

As Samuel left he handed Steve a small strand of dried meat. “You’ll need this more than I do Elder.”

“Thanks Sam. Say, make sure the single sisters are OK till I return, will you?” Samuel agreed and headed off with the others. Steve tore the meat and handed half to Arthur’s dad before collapsing on the rock where Arthur was last seen. Arthur’s dad said nothing but sat on a nearby rock with a sigh.

“He’s never been without us.”

“What’s that?” Steve wasn’t sure he heard what he thought he did.

“Arthur. He’s slept in the same room as the rest of the family since the day he was born. Never even slept in his own bed.”

“He’ll be ok.” Steve tried to bolster both the father’s and his own confidence. “Knowing Arthur, he’s probably found a nice warm, dry spot and is fast asleep.”

The distraught father smiled but didn’t say anything. Steve’s mind continued to race. What if he wasn’t asleep? What if he was out there wandering around some place scared to death, looking for something familiar? Looking for something! That’s it! Steve jumped up.

“C’mon, we’ve got to go get some wood and get a fire going! Arthur may be out there looking for us right now. If we build a big enough fire on the top of this hill, he should be able to see it for miles.” Arthur’s dad didn’t require any more motivation, he jumped up and followed Steve through the darkness.

“There were lots of deadfalls in the ravine down here. We ought to be able to find some dry enough to burn.” Steve noted as he gingerly made his way through the darkness. They spent the next hour or so pulling a dead log with most of its branches still attached back up the hill. Steve started breaking off the smaller branches when they got back to the top.

“Listen, I’m not too good at making fires without matches. Why don’t you get started on that and I’ll get the wood ready.” He said to Arthur’s dad.

Within a few minutes, a small fire was burning on the highest point of the hill. Arthur’s dad and Steve continued to add bigger and bigger branches until the flame reached four or five feet high and all that was left to burn was the trunk.

“We’re going to need more wood to keep this thing going all night.” Steve noted. “Why don’t we take turns. I’ll make the first run. You stay and keep feeding the trunk in.”

Arthur’s dad nodded but didn’t say anything. Steve turned back toward the grove and headed off at a trot. After looking into the fire, for so long it took his eyes a while to adjust to the darkness again. Thankfully, the last tree they pulled up the hill had cleared a wide swath through the prairie grass which made it easy to find the way. At the bottom of the hill Steve turned and looked back at the fire. He was pleased. It burned brightly and he was sure it could be seen for some distance in all directions.

Finding the right deadfall to haul back was quite a bit more difficult than finding the ravine of trees. Any light that the sliver of a moon gave off never reached the ground in the thick foliage surrounding the ravine. It quickly became a matter of Steve tripping over a fallen tree and then seeing if he could budge it to drag it back. It was a painful but unavoidable process. After four or five attempts, he finally found a log that he could budge by himself. He wrapped both arms around, pulled it in close to his side and began trudging back through the trees towards the glimmer of the fire that he could just make out from time to time through the foliage. Of course dragging a log he was even more susceptible to tripping and went down three or four more times before he came out of the trees. He dropped the log and sat down on it for a moment to catch his breath. At that moment he heard a sound that sent a chill through his body he would never forget.

The howl of a wolf carried clearly on the still night air. Steve had heard coyotes before but only from a distance and always around a campfire with several other people. But this was not a coyote off in the distance, it was a much bigger and closer sound. Steve’s first inclination was to leave the log and bolt for the fire. In fact he jumped to his feet with that intention. But then he thought of Arthur and Arthur’s dad.

Arthur was out there somewhere with that wolf and whatever other kind of beasts there were. And Arthur’s dad was plenty worried. To see Steve running to the safety of the fire because of a wolf, wouldn’t do anything to alleviate his worry. Maybe up near the fire Arthur’s father hadn’t even heard the wolf. Steve definitely wasn’t going to bring it up. And, though the logic was a little weak, Steve thought that maybe if the wolf concentrated on him, it wouldn’t have time or energy to find Arthur.

With these thoughts in mind, he steeled his courage, bent over, picked up the log and started trudging up the hill. With all the energy that he had left he started singing.

“Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, the big bad wolf, the big bad wolf. Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf. Tra-la-la-la-la.”

As Steve neared the top of the hill, Arthur’s dad saw him coming and came over to help him.

“Just in time, Elder. I just pushed the last of the trunk into the fire. I thought I heard someone singing, was that you?”

“Uh, yeah. I figure Arthur might be able to hear us if he can’t see us.”

They hauled the log back up to the fire which was now burning about three feet high and had developed an immense bed of coals. Throughout the remainder of the night, Steve made up several different excuses to keep Arthur’s father on the top of the hill while he went back down for more wood. By the time the sky began to brighten to the east, Steve was absolutely exhausted and disappointed. He was sure that the fire could be seen for miles around, if Arthur was up and looking at all during the night, he should have seen it. Steve slumped down on a rock and almost instantly fell asleep.

For the first time in several days he dreamed of home. He dreamed of his younger brother Brian. He dreamed of his little sister Jessica and he dreamed of Maeve. Sweet little Maeve in that cold dark grave! He was with her and the dirt was being shoveled in on top of them. No! No! He woke with a start to some one shaking him. It took him a few minutes to remember where he was and what he was doing there. He was relieved at not being buried, but the weight of Arthur’s disappearance was almost as bad.

Annie was at his side. “Elder! Elder! Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m Ok I guess.” Steve replied with a yawn.

“I’ve brought you something to eat.” She held up a bundle in a cloth with the corners tied at the top.

“Great! I’m starving.” Steve looked around as he yawned again. “Where’s Arthur’s dad? He’s got to be starving too.”

“He left with the other searchers at sun up. They were going to go back up the trail.”

“Sun up? How long have I been asleep?”

“I’ve been here about an hour.”

“Why didn’t you wake me? I should be out there with the others.” Steve stood to go.

“Sit down for a minute Elder.” Annie replied sternly. “You don’t sleep. You don’t eat. Soon you will collapse and then what good will you be to little Arthur?” Steve remained on his feet but didn’t move. He looked down at the bundle of food on the rock. Finally he sat back down with a sigh.

“Okay, but just long enough to eat.” Annie unwrapped the bundle which was filled with three or four corn meal biscuits and a couple of pieces of bacon.

“I’ll get the water. I left the bucket over by the fire.” Annie walked over to the fire which was now a gray smolder while Steve woofed the biscuits and bacon.

“We saw your fire from camp last night. A very good idea.”

Steve shook his head. “I thought sure he’d be able to see it and make his way back to us.” They were quiet for a few minutes while Steve ate and drank. He was the first to speak.

“I heard a wolf last night while I was getting wood down in that ravine.” He pointed in the direction of the ravine.

“Yes, we heard some in camp last night too. Poor Arthur’s mother was beside herself with grief. Poor, sweet woman.”

“I just can’t figure out where he could be. He’s only six, he couldn’t have gone that far! We’ve got to find him, I’m not leaving here until we do.”

“The captain’s plan is to move on this afternoon,” Annie hesitated for a moment, “whether Arthur is found or not.”

“What?”

“He said we’re so late in the season, we can not afford to delay the company any longer.”

Steve groaned. Deep in his gut he knew the captain was right, but he couldn’t stand the thought of leaving little Arthur by himself in the wilds. “We’ll just have to find him before noon then.” He said as he finished the last biscuit. He stood and took the tin cup of water offered by Annie.

“Thanks Annie.” He handed the cup back. “Will you please make sure that our tents get down and the carts loaded?”

Annie nodded and Steve hesitated for a moment and then added, “If I’m not back when the company pulls out, go ahead and start without me, I’ll catch up.”



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