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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Dave Free on 18 January 2007 - 7:05pm.

Chapter 22

Once the decision was made to carry on to the valley this season, the company wasted little time in Florence. Carts that needed repair were given top priority. Steve was asked to help the blacksmith make repairs to those family carts that had thrown a rim or needed other repair. Though Steve could now walk and even pull a loaded handcart for miles without breaking a sweat, he noticed as he pounded the hot iron against the anvil that his upper body was not what it used to be. As sweat began to trickle down his chest he remembered that day long ago when he sat in the Jacuzzi with Hank and watched the sweat run over his rippling pectorals. There was nothing to run over now. Steve couldn't help but chuckle as he thought about how much he used to worry about his muscles. A diet and fitness shop would not do well on the plains of Nebraska in the 1850's that was for sure. Steve could hardly remember now what it was like to have a choice when it came to eating or exercising. He could also hardly remember what it felt like to feel full. He rarely felt that any more. To think he used to have to "watch" what he ate and go out of his way to get exercise. Now the only watching he did was to make sure none of the crumbs of his humble biscuits slipped onto the ground. Exercise, of course, was a way of life--there was no choice. You didn't have to make a New Year's resolution to get enough exercise--that just happened. No, Steve concluded, if someone wanted to be successful with a business on the plains of Nebraska what they needed to open was a couch potato parlor. Steve envisioned row upon row of big leather recliners. Next to each recliner would be a table loaded with bottles of ice-cold soda pop, big juicy steaks, and baked potatoes with all the butter one could slather. Dessert would be served around the clock--cheesecake, hot fudge sundaes, brownies so gooey that you had to eat them with a spoon. And, best of all, big frosty chocolate milk shakes with cream and a bright red cherry on the top. Man that sounded good. Steve had just decided on a tag line (Give us an hour, we'll give you a waistline) when he was jolted from his reverie by the voice of the captain.

"Elder? Elder? Are you alright?"

"Uh? oh yeah I'm fine captain. I guess I was just day dreaming."

"Well you are pretty good if you can day dream with all this racket." The captain responded with a shout so he could be heard over the clatter and bang of the blacksmith work that was going on.

"Yeah, I guess you just get used to it." Steve shouted back at him.

"Elder, can I talk to you for a minute?" The captain motioned for Steve to follow him. Steve nodded, put his hammer down, took off his leather apron, grabbed his shirt and followed the captain away from the makeshift blacksmith shop.

They found some shade under a couple of big old cottonwood trees and the captain offered Steve a drink out of a leather canteen he was carrying. Steve gratefully accepted, took a long swig and then pulled his shirt on and began doing up the buttons.

The captain settled down on a log and waited for Steve to finish buttoning his shirt and sit beside him.

"We'll be pulling out in the morning Elder. You and the others have done a great job on the repairs. Everything looks ready for a propitious journey."

Steve wasn't sure what propitious meant but he had a feeling it meant something good. He just nodded and let the captain go on.

"Based on prior experience and some calculating I have done, we are going to need more flour to make it to the valley than what the oxen can pull."

"Is there anyplace we can get more flour around here?" Steve cut in, trying to get to the point faster.

"Finding the flour is not the problem Elder. We've secured all the flour we need. The issue is how we take it with us. The oxen can only pull so much, and it will not be enough to get us all the way to our destination. Our only option is to add a bag of flour to each cart."

Steve had helped load and unload the supply wagon a number of times and knew exactly how much a bag of flour weighed and it wasn't light--ninety-eight pounds to be exact. He thought of how much difference that weight would make on his cart and felt his temperature rising. He took a deep breath and tried to remain calm before speaking again. He wasn’t very successful.

"So the precious oxen can't pull another pound, but no problem--just load up the pioneers. They can pull another hundred pounds. Is that the deal?" The captain seemed to have been expecting such an outburst from Steve and his reply was calm.

"Elder, I know this won't be easy for the people. But we're talking about nearly one hundred and fifty bags of extra flour. If we load it on the wagons and kill off the oxen each cart will end up carrying two or three bags instead of just one. We could decide to leave it here and travel light, but I think I would rather work a little harder and make sure I have enough to eat than take the chance of starving to death. Wouldn't you agree?"

Steve hated it when he was wrong, and still didn't know why the captain was having this discussion with him. He nodded his head and replied, "Yeah, you're right. But can we at least make sure we use the flour off the carts first so we don't have to pull it a step further than necessary?"

"Absolutely, Elder. Absolutely. Now let me tell you why we are having this discussion. I need someone to distribute the flour to the families, explain the situation, and keep a record of where the supplies have been distributed. Remembering how well you and Annie did with the last weigh in you both immediately came to mind. I've already taken the liberty of talking to Annie and she has agreed to keep the record if you will accompany her and distribute the bags."

Steve just chuckled. He knew he had been had. If he tried to get out of it now, not only would the Captain be disappointed but also Annie would probably be offended. Steve had to admit to himself that he'd missed Annie's company over the last few days while he was working and liked the thought of spending some time with her even if in a not so pleasant task. The captain must have sensed Steve's hesitation and threw in a sweetener.

"You can tell the people that we're going to increase rations to a pound of flour a day and two pints of milk a day. We'll also be killing beef at least every three to four days for fresh meat. That should help with the burdensome news."

Steve had to admit that it would help and could almost smell a nice rib eye steak on the barbecue just thinking about it. "Alright captain, you've got yourself a deal. We'll tell them we're going high protein on the diet. A little ahead of our time, but it's going to be big some day believe me." Steve rose from the log and extended his hand to the captain. The captain took it with a bit of a quizzical look, but was too glad that Steve had accepted to ask any more questions.

He stood and said, "Great! I'm glad you willing. The flour is loaded on a wagon over by my tent. When you and Annie are ready you can come by and hitch up a team. Since we're leaving in the morning you'll need to get it taken care of before nightfall. I'll let the smithy know that I've asked you to help on another project. You best go find Annie and get started."

"Ok, I just need a couple of minutes to wash the sweat off then we'll get started." Steve turned to leave the captain, then thought of one more thing. He turned quickly around and caught up with the captain who was headed back into the clanking of the blacksmith's work. "Hey, sorry I forgot one thing!"

The captain stopped and waited for Steve to speak. "Medium rare." Steve said. The captain again looked puzzled. "I like my steaks medium rare--a nice stripe of pink right down the middle. Whatever you do, don't over cook it. I hate that." Without waiting for a reply, he turned and headed for the creek to splash off.

The captain looked after him and shook his head slowly before turning back toward the blacksmith.

Annie found Steve before he was done at the creek. "The captain said I might find you down here. Are you ready for our new assignment?"

Steve was just finishing with his shirt buttons again. "Ready as I'll ever be to be the least popular guy in the camp. At least I get to do it in the company of a hot chick."

Annie seemed to blush a little but didn't lose her composure. "I assume by 'chick' you are referring to me Elder, though I'm not at all certain what I have in common with a small fowl."

Steve took her by the arm and they started back through the camp. "You see Annie, in the future we have so much time on our hands to get educated in order to think up different uses for everyday words. A 'chick' is a good looking girl--or at least it was in the 70's--the 1970's that is. My dad used to always say it. Sometimes he'd call my mom his 'chickee babe.' He stopped doing that when my brother and I threatened to throw-up the next time he said it."

"Did your mom like it when your dad called her his 'chickee...babe?'" Annie asked.

"I can't say for sure," Steve responded, "but I know she liked it better than 'the ole' ball and chain.'"

"Ball and chain?"

"Yeah, you know, like the prisoners wear to keep them from running away."

"Your dad called your mom the 'ol ball and chain?'" Annie asked incredulously.

"Only jokingly." Steve laughed. "Next morning mom put salt instead of sugar in dad's cereal. I think he got the point."

"Sounds like your parents love each other very much." Annie said thoughtfully.

"Yeah I guess so. I never really thought of it that way." Steve responded. They were just his parents and that is how they acted. Most times Steve thought their little tricks and sayings were cornball, but as he thought about it he realized just how much they loved each other.

"Elder you never finished telling me about your relationship with your mom."

"Huh?" Steve was jolted from his thoughts and wasn't sure what Annie was talking about.

"Remember the night that Arthur returned to camp? You were about to tell me why you weren't as close to your mother as you wished."

"Oh that." Steve replied quietly remembering once again the pain he had caused his parents.

"You said something about not doing what she expected?"

"You've got a good memory Miss Annie. I had forgotten all about that conversation and was hoping you had too."

Annie noticed the change in Steve's demeanor and offered him an out, "If you wish not to discuss it Elder..."

"No, no it's Ok." Steve replied, "It's probably good for me to talk about it. You see my parents are very active members of the church. Ever since I was little they told me how I was going to go on a mission and how great it would be."

"How lovely." Annie offered trying to be supportive. Steve looked at her and smiled weakly.

"Yeah, I guess so. For the first seventeen years of my life I believed them, but then as I got older and thought more about it I decided a mission wasn't right for me. The morning of the accident--when I landed on the train next to you--I told my parents I wasn't going on a mission."

Steve paused for a moment. Annie didn't say anything, just kept walking and listening.

"They didn't take it very well. The last time I saw my mom she had tears running down her cheeks and ran from the room sobbing. My dad just sat there but I could tell from the look on his face that he was broken hearted. So there you have it. Not only am I hopelessly lost in the past with no idea what I'm doing here, the last time I saw my parents, I broke their hearts. Now can you see why there is no way I could be a messenger from God? Not only am I unprepared, I'm not worthy."

Annie hesitated for only a moment before responding. "Elder we can talk about the need to be worthy to be called later, though if memory serves it certainly wasn't a prerequisite for Saul or Alma the younger--but what I would really like to know is why you decided not to serve a mission in the first place?"

Steve thought for a moment to remember his logic. "I guess it came down to even if the church is true, I wasn't comfortable imposing my beliefs on others."

"And do you still feel that way Elder?"

"I guess so, yeah." They were now within a few yards of the captain's tent. Steve breathed an inward sigh of relief. Annie's line of questioning was beginning to make him feel uncomfortable. He had been around her long enough to know when she was getting "warmed up" and all the signs were now present.

"Hey look, the captain has already got the team hitched up for us!" He said hoping to change the subject.

It seemed to work. Annie just smiled and followed Steve over to where the captain was finishing the hitching.

"Oh there you are. I figured if I got the team hitched you could be on your way a little quicker." The captain said straightening up as he turned to greet them.

"Annie you will find the ledger book there on the seat. Please just note the name of each family that ends up with a bag on their cart. Thank you both again for your help and good luck." He handed the reins to Steve and then stood back to let Annie and Steve climb up on to the seat of the wagon. Steve had had a little practice with a team since the commotion in the lumberyard on his first day. He gave the reins a slap, waved goodbye to the captain, and pulled the team around toward the center of the camp.

The distribution of the flour actually went much better than Steve had expected or hoped. Very few of the saints murmured and those that did seemed to murmur about everything so it didn't bother him much. News of the extra rations generally cheered up everyone. Steve also noticed that the month on the trail had done wonders for most of the saints. They were no longer pale and frail looking. Most were now trail-hardened and anxious to be moving again.

Steve also felt much more comfortable moving among the saints than he had a month ago. He knew most of their names now and at least a little something about each of them. Luke and William, the odd couple, hadn't changed a bit. Luke was as jolly as old St. Nick and assured Steve that nothing would make him happier than hauling an extra hundred pounds across the plains. William, on the other hand, was rather dour and continued to keep a close eye on Steve just in case he happened to have a "fit." He also asked no one in particular if there weren't some younger "chaps" that would be better suited to pull the extra weight. Annie politely assured him that everyone was doing their part. Steve faked a sneeze to add finality to the discussion and they moved on to the next tent.

By the time the last bag of flour was distributed, the wagon was full of children who had joined the parade as Annie and Steve made their way through camp. Steve had taught them several "camp" songs along the trail and he now lead them in a rousing rendition of "Sippin Cider" as they made their way back to the captain's tent. Just as they finished the last verse, Steve yelled "whoa" to the team and pulled them up in front of the captain's tent. The captain came out of his tent and had to yell to be heard over the laughter and shouting.

I’m glad to see your popularity hasn’t suffered any Elder! He shouted with a smile and held out his hand to help Annie down. The loud voice of the captain quieted the children who began to scramble down over the sides of the wagon.

“We start early in the morning children. Be off to your families now and get some sleep!” The captain added. There was a collective groan from the children and they began to shuffle off through the dust.

“Last one to their tent is a rotten egg!” Steve yelled to add urgency. He jumped from the wagon bed with one leap and pretended to chase the nearest child. There was a chorus of screams and within seconds all the children had disappeared. Steve turned and jogged back to where Annie and the captain were talking. Annie returned the logbook to the captain and Steve began to unhitch the team.

“Elder, don’t worry about the team. I’ve asked some other brethren to get the wagon loaded in preparation for our start tomorrow. They should be here shortly. You go ahead and get

“No problem.” Steve replied. “Are you sure I can’t help get the wagon loaded?”

“No. No, you’ve done your part for the day. Be on your way now.”

“Alrightee. Miss Annie, shall we?” Steve put out his arm for Annie. She took it with a smile and they set off for their tents.

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