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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Dave Free on 18 January 2007 - 7:08pm.

Chapter 25

Two days later the entire company was ferried across the Elk Horn on flatboats. The captain asked Steve to keep count and direct traffic on the east side of the river while he passed across and organized the saints as they arrived on the west. When Steve and his handcarts finally made it to the west side he reported to the captain that 132 handcarts, 8 wagons, and 180 head of cattle had safely made the voyage.

The company settled into a pretty steady and consistent routine. Usually on the trail by 7:00 or 8:00 am, Lunch (or dinner as Steve learned the pioneers called it) was usually eaten at 1:00 or 2:00; and then the company would do a few more miles before calling it a day at 6:00 or 7:00 at night. There were exceptions of course depending on the weather and the availability of water.

Just a few days past Winter Quarters Steve suddenly realized he was sweating all by himself. He happened to be helping Aaron and Elizabeth with their cart when he suddenly realized it was no longer humid.

He stopped in his tracks and stood up. “It’s gone!” He shouted.

The Jacksons stopped pulling and turned and looked at him, as did their two-year-old son Aaron Jr. who was riding in the cart.

“What’s gone Elder?” Aaron asked between heavy breaths.

“The humidity! It’s not humid any more! We’re sweating by ourselves!” Steve held up his empty hands as if to show them there was no more humidity. The single sisters were pulling the cart behind the Jackson’s and were quickly approaching. Aaron smiled at the Elder and leaned into the pull bar once again. His wife joined him. Steve grabbed a hold of the back of the cart and start pushing as well. The sudden movement toppled Aaron Jr. over onto a bundle of clothes. He laughed and sat back up.

Steve continued, “Do you know what this means?”

“What does it mean Elder?” Sister Jackson seemed willing to humor him but not too excited.

“It means we’re in the west! Utah is dry. It never feels sticky in Utah. We must be getting close because it’s not humid anymore!” Both the Jacksons smiled but didn’t stop pulling.

Steve was perhaps the only one to be excited about the increasingly dry conditions. The green wood of the carts now began to dry out quickly and repairs became more and more common. In addition, the high-pitched screech of dry wood rubbing on dry wood began to accompany the saints as they marched along. To avoid the screeching some used bacon fat or soap as grease. Others sacrificed a bootleg or tin plate to wrap their axle with the hopes of reducing the noise and making it easier to pull. None of the solutions worked well and more often then not wheels would start to wobble as the axle wore down and eventually broke, requiring repair.

Steve did his best to spread his help around whenever he could. When the company crossed a particularly sandy or difficult stretch of trail he would often help the sisters pull their cart through and then go back to help Aaron or John or Elizabeth with their family carts. Sometimes he would go and look for the O’Malleys and give them a hand for a while until Mother O’Malley would chase him off with a towel to go help the single sisters again. The work wasn’t easy but Steve was still in better shape than most of the pioneers. He also found that moving from cart to cart was less monotonous than trudging along with the same cart all day.

One day a few weeks out of Winter Quarters was particularly tough. The company had been unable to find any good water the day before and had pulled their carts from 8:00 AM till 10:00 PM with only a one-hour break for lunch. They covered twenty-four miles but found very little water. The next day they were on the trail again by 8:00 am with high hopes for water and easier trails. They were disappointed in both.

They crossed what seemed like endless sand dunes--up and down and up and down. At a very different time and place, Steve actually loved the sand. Each spring his family made its annual trek to the sand dunes. The last few years, his dad had conceded to let the boys rent four wheelers. There was nothing quite as fun as spraying a rooster tail of sand thirty feet into the air and then shooting off across the dunes. The wide rubber tires of the four wheelers easily floated over the driest of sand. The narrow wooden wheels of the handcarts, on the other hand, sliced deep into the sand making it even more difficult to pull. Footing was also a problem. Only about half of the energy exerted moved the cart forward. The rest was wasted slipping in the sand and then lifting the foot from the sand to start over again. Even those not pulling carts struggled along at a dismally slow pace.

Steve’s carts lead the company that day. He was glad they did because every foot and every cart wheel lofted fine sand particles into the air that were then blown into the faces of those that followed. Breaking the trail through the wind blown sand wasn’t much fun either but it was better than pulling through a sandstorm.

Twelve o’clock came and went with still no sign of water or firm ground. The afternoon brought more heat and even bigger hills. John’s cart was in the lead and with Steve’s help from behind they topped out on the largest hill so far that day. The captain was at the top waiting for them. The other carts were still far down the hill. As they crested, the captain pointed to the west. “Water holes not far. Should be there in a half hour or so. We’ll stop there for dinner.”

Steve dropped to his knees, shaded his eyes and squinted in the direction the Captain was pointing. There was a still lot of sand, but he could just make out some dark spots. Water and a rest sounded wonderful. He collapsed on his stomach and then rolled over to his back.

“Shouldn’t an oasis be surrounded by palm trees, camels and big tents filled with belly dancers?” Steve asked no one in particular. No one answered. “Could use a magic genie right now, that’s for sure.” He said to himself and then sat up.

“I’m going to head back down and help the others. Save some of that water for me.” He stumbled over the edge of the crest and let gravity carry him down the hill. Samuel and his family weren’t too far from the top. Steve decided to go on past them and help the sisters that were just approaching the hill.

Sam’s six-year-old brother called out to Steve, “Hey dude you are going the wrong way!” Steve chuckled but Sam’s mom wasn’t amused.

“You’ll be calling the Elder ‘Elder’ Richard. His name is not ‘dude.’”

“But that’s what he--” Richard started but Steve cut him off trying to save any more grief with the mom.

“Good news! There is waterhole visible from the top of this hill. Mostly downhill from the top, so you are almost there!” Had Samuel’s family had the energy, they might have cheered. As it was they all just smiled big smiles and leaned into their pushing and pulling with a little more energy.

Steve found the sisters’ cart at the bottom of the bluff and fell in behind to help them push.

“What up my sistas?” He asked with a little too much juice as he began to push. Annie was the closest and was the only one to respond with more than a polite nod.

“The hill is up Elder and we are down, very far down. Have you any more nonsensical questions?”

Steve smiled. “My we’re in a ‘jolly good’ mood this afternoon aren’t we?”

Annie let go of the back of the cart, stood up straight, closed her eyes and slowly tilted her head back and rolled her shoulders to stretch. “Sorry, Elder it has been a long day and I’ve no patience for foolishness with this long hill in front of us.” She took a few quick steps to catch back up with the cart and began pushing again.

“I know.” Steve felt sorry for giving her a hard time and adding to her burdens. “I just about didn’t make it up this hill myself, but trust me--this is the last one. I have seen the other side and there is water--well at least a watering hole.”

The incline of the slope sucked all their energy and they pushed on in silence until about the middle of the hill when Lydia called for a break.

“Sorry I can’t take another step without a brief rest.” She gasped. They turned the cart sideways on the hill and sat down looking back on the company stretched out for some distance behind them. The nearest cart, John and Margaret’s, was just approaching the start of the incline below them.

After a few minutes of resting, Annie asked, “Do they look imposed upon Elder?”

“Huh?” Steve didn’t understand exactly what she was asking.

“The saints you see there. Do they look imposed upon?”

Steve looked again back at the long row of pioneers struggling to pull all their earthly belongings through the deep sand. “Actually, they do look a little imposed on don’t they?” He responded innocently.

Annie said, “Look again. Do you see anyone in that line that is not working hard? Anyone that is not exerting all his or her energy?”

Steve wasn’t sure where this line of questioning was going so he was very careful in how he answered.

“No, it looks to me like everyone is giving it their all.”

“So Elder tell me, do you know anyone who would be willing to reduce their earthly belongings to seventeen pounds and then be willing to drag those belongings across thousands of miles in support of beliefs that had been ‘imposed upon them? Do you see any task masters driving them with whips, forcing them to give their all?”

The light was beginning to dawn in Steve’s tired mind as he remembered his words to Annie about his mission decision. Annie didn’t wait for the sunrise but drove her point home.

“The fact is Elder no one would be willing to make the sacrifices that we all have for anything less than the truth. You said you chose not to serve a mission because you didn’t want to ‘impose your beliefs’ upon someone else. Did it ever occur to you that what you have--your beliefs--are of great worth? When the missionaries taught us, it was like a new day dawning. I had never heard anything so wonderful in my life. God is speaking to a prophet again! Elder, if a wealthy individual set out to share his wealth with those that had none, would you object on the grounds that he is imposing his wealth on others?”

Steve tried to answer but only got a chance for a shake of his head before Annie answered for him.

“No, of course not. What you have Elder--your knowledge and testimony of the gospel--is worth more than all the money in the world. No, Elder, you would not be imposing at all but would be greater, far greater than the rich man sharing his money. The Lord himself calls the gospel ‘tidings of great joy’ and says that the feet of those that publish will be beautiful upon the mountains.”

Steve looked at his worn out boots but didn’t say anything. Annie finished him off.

“Elder you are worse than a miser. You have the greatest treasure in the world that would only increase as you share it, but you have been selfish with it. Tis a shame Elder. Tis truly a shame.”

It was suddenly quiet on the side of the hill. Steve looked around at the other sisters but they all averted his glance. Lydia mumbled something about getting started again and they all got to their feet and quietly took their place at the cart.

Steve hardly noticed when they reached the top of the bluff and started down the other side. What Annie had said had been painful. He liked Annie and didn’t like the thought of her being ashamed of him, but he was also once again ashamed of himself. He wished he could go crawl under a rock somewhere and think things out--or better yet, he wished he had never blown up at his parents and taken the ski trip with Hank. If he just had that one moment back!

He’d been down that path a million times before and it never lead anywhere but right back to 1856, so he pulled his mind back to the question of his attitude about the gospel. He had never really thought of the gospel as a great treasure. To him it had always been just another chore to go to church with his family, but Annie was right. Nobody would sacrifice everything these people were sacrificing without a darn good reason. It certainly wasn’t money. Maybe some of them could have been fooled into being baptized by a very persuasive missionary, but Steve had to admit that the power of that missionary over any of these saints would have worn off about five miles into this trip. No, this had to be the real deal. Suddenly it struck Steve that these pioneers had something he didn’t have. Sure he believed the church was true, but did he know it enough to be willing to make the kind of sacrifices these people were? Apparently not, or he would have seen it for what it was- - a treasure and not a constraining belief system to be imposed on others. He remembered with some chagrin the fact that Annie had sacrificed her entire family for her beliefs. What a selfish fool he was! All these people sacrificing so much and him with so much and yet unwilling tot share even a little. The thought struck him force to his very core. He wasn’t left to contemplate long. The rumble and bleating of stampeding cows combined with angry shouting tore him from his thoughts.

He looked up just in time to see the whole herd of cattle racing pell mell for the water hole. Saints were chasing after them yelling and the few saints ahead of Steve, including the captain, were waving their arms and trying to change the course of their charge but it was all to no avail. The cattle smelled the water and would not be turned away.

Had Steve not been so tired and so deep in somber thoughts, he might have thought the spectacle funny--but only until he reached the water holes and found little more than black mud left by the cattle.

Dinner that afternoon was black: the biscuits, the porridge, the stirabout, the hasty pudding and the sludge they tried to drink--it was all black, nearly as black as the mud they used to make it but not nearly as black as Steve’s mood. He sat with Samuel and his brothers for a while. They begged him to tell them stories about the four-wheeled carriages that could go faster than a horse and spray sand forty feet in the air. He tried, but he couldn’t shake the dark and disappointed feeling that was taking him over. Finally, he told them he was too tired to talk, found a little shade under a cart, and tried to fall asleep.

If he slept, he didn’t know it. By the time the word came for the camp to move out, his mood had not improved. He went through the motions of getting his carts on the trail again, but spoke no more than was absolutely necessary and tried to keep to himself as much as possible. He fell in behind Aaron and Elizabeth’s cart knowing that they wouldn’t ask him questions and wouldn’t expect him to talk.

Sand and the lack of water, the two topics that had consumed his thoughts for the past two days were now just minor irritants compared to the feelings he was experiencing for the first time in his life. “How could I have been such a loser?” He asked himself over and over again without ever finding an answer. “Why couldn’t I see what I had?” He mulled over the hundreds of Primary, Sunday School, Priesthood and Family Home Evening lessons he had participated in. He thought about his Seminary teachers. “I learned stuff. I know I did. But I never ‘got it.’ I was too stupid and too worried about what others were thinking about me.” It hurt most when he thought about his parents, especially his mom. For the first time in his life he could actually sense the pain he had caused her. It took his breath away like a great weight pressing on his chest. He stumbled.

“Are you alright Elder?” It was Aaron who had felt the jerk on the cart when Steve stumbled.

Steve looked up. “Yeah. Fine. Just tripped.” He returned to his self-inflicted misery.

The sun set that night with the company still on the trail in search of good water. Steve hardly noticed. He had nearly convinced himself that the only escape from the pain, shame, and misery he felt was to go crawl under a rock and die when the captain shouted, “Prairie Creek ahead. We’ll be camping here for the night!”

The news spread quickly down the line and the pace quickened as they covered the last half-mile to the creek.

The sound of the running water was too much for even the bone-weary saints to resist. Many left their carts and ran to the creek to soothe their hot, tired feet and drink the cool, clear water. Steve decided his plan to die could wait until after he got a drink and headed up the creek a ways to find a private place to enjoy the water. He found just what he was looking for and dropped down on his stomach on the grassy bank of the creek and began to slurp the cool clear water. He could feel the first few swallows make their way all the way to his stomach. He enjoyed the brief moment and then the blackness returned. He submerged his whole face in the water and held his breath as long as he could before pulling back and flipping his wet hair to the side.

“Trying to drown yourself Elder?”

Steve didn’t even turn to look. He knew the voice and wasn’t very excited to hear it. He didn’t respond. Annie didn’t need him to.

“The water is wonderful isn’t it?” Again Steve didn’t reply and Annie kept going.

“Running water is so much better than stagnant water. I nearly choked on our black dinner this afternoon.” She paused for a minute.

“I’ve been thinking people are like water.” Steve turned and looked at her but didn’t say anything.

“Selfish people are like the black water hole. They try to keep everything and everything turns black and sour.”

“I get it Annie. I get it!” Steve said quietly and sighed. “You’re right. I’m a loser. I’m not going to lie to you. I screwed up big time. I AM the black mud puddle.” He sat up on the bank and leaned against a nearby tree. Annie didn’t respond and they both just sat and listened to the creek run by. Finally Steve said,

“The thing is, I don’t know what to do about it. I feel so crappy. For the first time in my life I can see what a jerk I am, and there is nothing I can do about it! I can’t go apologize to my parents. I can’t go back and live that morning over. I can’t do anything--not while I’m stuck here.” He picked up a nearby rock and slammed it into the creek to emphasize his last point.

Annie, who had been leaning against a nearby tree with her arms folded now came over and knelt by Steve in the grass. She put her hand on his shoulder so that he would turn and look at her.

“None of us get to go back and change what we have done, Elder. None of us. But the Savior can turn us from black mud to clear running water. That is what the atonement is all about. You are half way there.”

Steve resisted, but thoughts of the black despair he had been experiencing changed his mind. He wanted to believe. He simply asked, “What do you mean?”

“You remember King Benjamin?” Annie asked. Steve thought for a moment

“I think so. Guy with the tower, right?” He asked.

“That’s him. His people had a mighty change of heart while listening to him preach. In the end they had no more desire to ever sin again. To get there, they had to go through exactly what you are going through. The scriptures say they fell down because they had seen themselves in their own carnal state--less than the dust of the earth. My point is Elder, we all have to see ourselves honestly before the atonement can be applied. It’s painful, but it is necessary.”

Steve nodded, it certainly was painful. Annie stood up. “It’s up to you Elder. You’ve seen yourself for what you are. You can either continue to wallow in your self-pity or turn to the only one that can turn it to joy.” She started back to camp. Steve called after her.

“Annie!”

She paused for a moment and turned to look at him.

“Where is King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon?”

She smiled. “The opening chapters of Mosiah.”

“Thanks.”



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