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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Dave Free on 18 January 2007 - 7:04pm.

Chapter 21

“Aye Elder! Ye’ve nearly starved yerself to death without me cookin’! A scarecrow ye’ve become!”

Steve immediately recognized the voice of Sister O’Malley and turned from the tent he was setting up with a grin. He tried to think of a witty come back but was too overwhelmed by the site of her familiar face and the happy tone of her voice. He hadn’t heard this since Maeve’s death. He just stood there smiling for several seconds.

A look of concern swept over the sun-burned cheeks of mother O’Malley. “Are ye sick Elder? Can ye not speak?”

Steve began to stammer. “No, no--I mean yes, I can speak and no, I’m not sick. I’m just...” Steve finally got a grip on himself. “I’m just struck dumb with terror at the thought that I might have to eat your cooking again.”

The familiar towel flew off mother O’Malley’s shoulder. Like a striking cobra it lashed out and snapped with a crack on Steve’s arm. Rather than recoiling, Steve stepped forward and wrapped mother O’Malley in a bear hug and a laugh.

“Unhand me or I’ll have the captain put ye in chains I will!” Mother O’Malley feigned anger but she gave Steve a good squeeze before tearing loose.

“Where’s your tent? Father O’Malley and the boys? Everyone is ok?” Steve asked as he bent over and finished tying the tent line off to the stake.

“Yes, yes, fine we are Elder. A little more sunburnt than when we started but we’re all fine. Our tent is not far. A few Dublin city blocks to the east I’m thinking.” She pointed in the general direction.

“And yerself Elder? Other than nearly starvin’ to death how ‘ave ye been?” She asked.

Steve finished his knot and straightened up before answering. “I’m good. I’m still lost, but I’m good.”

“Aye Elder, yer head and me heart. A fine pair we make, we two.” She took him by the arm as they walked around to the front of the tent. “And yer heart Elder? Has yer sparkin’ lead to the flames?”

“My sparking?”

“Aye Elder. Yer as dense as me husband ye are! The lass Annie! Is she talking to you or has she given up on ye all together? Though I’m not sure at this point that I’d blame her and that’s the truth.”

“Sparking?” Steve said again in mock disbelief. Mother O’Malley gave up on words, let go of Steve’s arm and resorted to the cobra towel. Steve was laughing so hard he was having a hard time defending himself when Annie came around the opposite corner of the tent.

“Elder there’s a--oh, hello Sister O’Malley, I--” Annie stopped in confusion, not sure what to make of Steve literally choking on laughter while Mother O’Malley worked him over with the towel.

Mother O’Malley stopped in embarrassment when she saw Annie. Steve gasped for breath and responded to Annie. “Hi Annie! Come on over. Mother O’Malley was just completing her interrogation.”

“Impossible!” Mother O’Malley hissed under her breath at Steve and snapped him in the stomach one more time for good measure. Then with a broad smile she turned to Annie and said, “Sister Annie, ‘ow ‘ave ye been? Worried sick I’ve been knowing what kind of tent captain ye’ve had to labor under.”

Annie responded without a smile. “We all have our cross to bear Sister. Mine just happens to be more grievous than most.” She managed to keep her face straight for only a few seconds before giving up to a smile and a wink at Steve. Steve chuckled and Mother O’Malley became giddy at the sight of Annie winking at Steve.

Annie continued, “Elder, before I forget, Captain Martin has called a meeting of the tent captains. You’re expected at his tent this very moment.”

“Ah yes, duty calls and I must bear my cross: the burden of leadership. Ladies I bid you adieu.” Steve took a deep and sweeping bow, smiled, and turned to leave.

Sister O’Malley called after him. “Elder, after you’ve beared yer burden, would you and Annie care to come to our tent fer supper? I’ll be cookin me stew tonight.”

“OK with me, as long as I don’t have to eat any of it. Annie?” Steve looked at Annie to see if she was willing.

“It sounds wonderful, Sister O’Malley. We’ll bring our flour rations for the biscuits.”

Steve found the other tent captains gathering near the center of camp and began searching the sunburned faces for O’Malley’s. The portion of the company that O’Malley’s family had been assigned to arrived in camp the day prior and this was the first meeting of the combined group of tent captains since leaving Iowa City. After searching for several minutes, Steve found O’Malley but wasn’t able to get over to him before Captain Martin’s voice began booming.

“Brethren, you are to be congratulated! We made it across Iowa, a distance of nearly three hundred miles, in less than four weeks!” A cheer went up from the tent captains. Steve managed to find an empty rock and take a seat before Captain Martin continued. “For those of you not aware, President Richards and several other Elders returning from their labors in your beautiful home land arrived here yesterday. President Richards will now address us.” For the first time Steve noticed seven or eight unfamiliar and less sunburned faces sitting slightly behind and to the right of where the captain was standing to speak. One of these now stood to speak.

Steve wasn’t sure what President Richards was the president of, but he seemed young, at least in appearance, to be the president of anything. His hair was cut in what Steve had come to recognize as a common hair cut of the time--the young Brigham Young cut. Long and swept to one side on the top, just long enough to cover the ears and almost looked curled under on the sides. He was clean shaven and had a peaceful, almost dreamy look to him. His voice was not as deep or booming as Captain Martin’s but carried just as well. Steve had no problem hearing him.

“Brethren, I too congratulate you on your fine trek across Iowa. It does my heart good to pass along the line of your camp and see the smiles of your children and wives. Each of them bear record of the truths of the words of President Young, wherein he promised the handcart pioneers increasing strength along the way. The Lord’s hand is definitely in this great plan for moving you, the faithful saints, to Zion in a timely and cost effective manner. Through your continued faith, obedience, and prayers I am convinced that the Lord will bless you and see you safely to Zion.

“Now brethren, not but a few days hence the Willie company held a meeting on this very spot to discuss the lateness of the season and the future of the trek. With only one exception, a brother Levi Savage, they all supported the plan to carry on to Zion this season and not establish a winter camp here to wait for next spring. You must now make the same decision for yourselves. Today is August 22nd, admittedly very late in the season. Yet I believe that though it might storm on our right hand and on our left, the Lord will keep open the way before us and we will arrive safely in Zion. Brethren, all those that are for continuing on to Zion now please rise.”

All the tent captains rose enthusiastically. Steve sat still and undecided. He hadn’t realized when he came to this meeting that he would be asked to make a decision like this and do it so publicly. Every fiber of his body called out that they should not continue, but it was fairly clear that no one else at this meeting was having those kind of feelings. To stand now would be so easy, but maybe this was his message. Maybe this was why he was here. This was his opportunity to tell the leadership what was going to happen and change the course of history.

President Richards was now telling those standing to take their seats. He then said, “Brethren, it looks unanimous. Is there any one here who thinks we should remain in this camp for the winter?” Steve’s legs suddenly felt like cement. As much as he wanted to, he could not seem to make them work. President Richards only hesitated for a moment and quickly moved on to the next topic. He was encouraging the brethren to work quickly repairing carts so that they could get back on the trail when Steve’s legs finally started working again--not to rise in opposition, but to slink away unnoticed into the camp and then into the undergrowth that lined the banks of the Missouri river.

He walked for a long time up the bank of the river until he found a well-secluded sitting stone where he could be alone to swat mosquitoes and feel miserable in peace. He blew it! His big chance, perhaps the whole reason he was here and he couldn’t do it! He couldn’t get off his rear and tell those brethren what was going to happen to them and their families! Maybe Annie was wrong. Maybe there was no purpose for being here. It was just some freak accident of time. Surely if God had a purpose for him to be in this place at this time, He wouldn’t have let him fail at that purpose. Or maybe he would! Maybe the deal was if he failed he had to stay here forever! “Ahhh!” Steve groaned out loud. The pit at the bottom of his stomach opened wide and waves of fear and doubt washed over his heart and mind. He rolled off the rock he had been sitting on and curled up in the fetal position in the weeds next to it and gave up. There was nothing left to give. He was exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually. Sleep finally came as a welcome respite from the burdens of being stuck between two worlds.

Despite the mosquitoes, Steve slept deeply and peacefully on the banks of the Missouri. Initially there were no dreams but when they came they were incredibly life-like and powerful. Oddly enough, he dreamed his standard ‘win-the-basketball-game-with-a-shot-in-the-final-seconds’ dream. The ref was calling Steve’s team back onto the court at the end of the final time out. Steve’s coach was outlining the final play, “Set the pick for Steve here at the top of the key.” He turned to Steve. “I don’t have to tell you what to do with the ball once you get it. You’re good. You’re the best, just do your stuff.” Steve nodded, wiped the sweat from his face and together with his team, returned to the court. He setup on the baseline. The ball came in. Steve spun and ran to the top of the key. The pick on his defender was solid, the bounce pass was perfect and Steve had the ball in the open with only three ticks left on the clock. He didn’t think, he just felt and flowed. The opposing team’s center was coming out on him. There was no time to get around him. Steve pulled up for the shot. The center was closing fast. Steve could see his shot wouldn’t clear the extended arms of the defender. In mid-air he shifted the ball to his left hand and let it go. The ball narrowly missed being blocked before swishing cleaning through the net. The buzzer sounded. Steve’s team won and he was a hero. The crowd began chanting, “Steve! Steve! Steve!” They came off the bleachers and surrounded him. “Steve! Steve! Steve!” Steve hugged his team mates and anyone else that didn’t mind the sweat. He was about to get a hug from his favorite cheerleader when the chanting changed. “Elder! Elder! Elder!”

Steve fought to keep the dream alive. Time for the instant replays and the after game interviews. “So Steve--that was some shot you made. Did you ever have any doubt that you could do it?” Steve nodded. “Yeah, when the coach called the play to me I thought, ‘no way I can do this, give the ball to Jones or Gilbert or somebody else.’ But I didn’t have time to argue so I just went along with it.”

The interviewer looked a little stunned, but regained enough composure to continue the interview. “Once you got on the court those doubts must have vanished. It looked like you really wanted the ball.”

“Me? No way! I didn’t want the ball. There was only three seconds left! What if I screwed up, then the whole team would hate me. I was trying to get Gilbert to switch with me when the ball came in.”

The interviewer was becoming incredulous. “But what about that shot. You must have practiced that shot a million times. It was pure poetry.”

Steve shook his head again. “It was a brick, a lucky brick. Stuff happens.”

The interviewer gave up and wandered off with a dazed look on his face. The chanting began again, “Elder! Elder! Elder!” This time it was loud and clear and someone was shaking him. Steve opened his eyes and slowly came out of the haze of his dream. Annie was kneeling next to him shaking his shoulders.

“Elder! Wake Up! Wake Up! We have been looking everywhere for you! Are you sound?”

“I was sound asleep, that’s what I was. Am I still here?” Steve pulled himself up to a sitting position and looked around. The sun had nearly set in the western sky and the few wispy clouds in the sky had a pinkish-orange tint to them. Steve shook his head again. “Boy, I was out cold.”

“Elder, I’ve--I mean we have been worried sick about you. Is there anything amiss?”

“Uh?” Steve continued to shake the cobwebs from his head.

“Have you hurt yourself Elder?” Annie asked pointedly.

“No I don’t think so.” Steve shook his arms and legs to prove it and then as his memory of the meeting returned added, “At least not physically.”

“Did you lose your way?” Annie continued her line of questioning.

Steve yawned. “No, no I know exactly where I am.”

“Then what on earth are you doing here Elder? We were supposed to eat with the O’Malley’s hours ago.” Annie was losing her patience.

“Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot all about that. I came out here to mourn the loss of my 'big opportunity' and I guess I fell asleep.”

“And what opportunity might that be?” Annie asked as she moved from her kneeling position to a more comfortable seat on a fallen log.

“Didn’t you hear about the big meeting?” Steve rose from the grass, walked down to the water’s edge and splashed some water on his face.

“I understand that a vote was taken and that not a single soul voted against continuing on to Zion immediately.”

“That’s right.” Steve returned to his rock and slumped down on it . The weight of his failure earlier in the afternoon returned fully to his shoulders. “Not a single soul. Not even somebody who knows this trip is going to end in disaster--somebody who was beginning to believe that his purpose for being here was to avoid the disaster.”

“Oh, I see. You are angry with yourself for not standing up and voting against continuing?”

“Brilliant deduction, Sherlock.”

Annie had learned to ignore comments from Steve she didn’t understand. She didn’t even waste a moment thinking about it. “Why would that make you angry Elder? Perhaps it is the right thing to go to Zion immediately.”

“How can it be the right thing for hundreds of good people to die? It’s not the right thing! I was just too big a wimp to do anything about it. You know what the worst thing is? I’m not even as worried about all the people dying as I am about getting back to my time and family. If my purpose was to come stop the disaster and I’ve blown that purpose, what happens to me? Do I have to stay here forever like some cast off loser?”

Annie stood now and put her hands on her hips. “Stop it Elder! God doesn’t let his messengers fail! Have you never read the story of Jonah? Did God let him fail? No! And what about Nephi returning to Jerusalem for the gold plates? He failed several times, but ultimately he was successful because he didn’t give up!”

Steve was silent for a few moments and then replied sullenly, “Both Jonah and Nephi knew exactly what their mission was--I don’t, I thought I did, but I don’t.”

“Nor do I Elder, but I am quite certain that it is not to lay on the banks of this river feeling sorry for yourself.” Annie’s tone softened and she sat down next to Steve as she continued. “Have you heard about the meeting the Willie company had when they passed through here a few days ago?”

Steve nodded. “I heard they took a vote and decided to go on.”

“Yes that is right, but one of the Elders that was there told me that the vote was not unanimous. A brother Savage, I believe was his name, voted against continuing. When he saw that the company was determined to continue, he didn’t leave them, or curse them, or even feel sorry for himself. I’m told he stood and told the company that as they were determined to go forward he would go with them and help them all he could, including dying with them if he had to.”

Annie paused for some time and Steve pretended to be very interested in a particular blade of his grass at his feet. Annie reached over and put her hand on Steve’s arm.

“Perhaps Elder your mission is not to keep us from continuing our trek this season, but to help us arrive safely.”

Steve looked up at Annie. His anger melted away and was replaced by a warmth and slight hopefulness. “I wish I knew Annie. I just wish I knew.”



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