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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Dave Free on 18 January 2007 - 7:15pm.

Chapter 26

“Fort Kearney ahead!” The call came down the line at about 10:30 a few days after the black day. Steve and his carts were near the middle of the train. The going had been much easier since reaching Prairie Creek. Water was plentiful and the trail was lined with grass. Spirits in general were high.

The only exception to that seemed to be brother Luke and brother William pulling the cart in front of the single sisters that day. Steve couldn’t tell exactly what they were upset about it, but it was obvious from their tone of their voices when they talked to each other that they were not happy to be together that day. Steve tried to be sociable and ease the tension, but even the typically jovial brother Luke seemed less than excited about chatting with Steve as they walked along.

The tension between the two seemed to escalate as they neared the fort. Their voices were raised and Steve noticed other members of the company looking back straining to see what the commotion was. In an attempt to overwhelm the arguing and hopefully ease the tension he started singing at the top of his lungs:

For some must push and some pull

As we go marching up the hill,

As merrily on the way we go

Until we reach the Valley, oh.

With the anticipation of reaching the fort soon, the pioneers up and down the line quickly joined in the singing and the company sang its way the last half mile to the fort.

“They call this a fort?” Steve asked out loud as he straightened up and stretched his back. There was no big wall, no gate, nothing that would give one the impression that this was supposed to be a fort. All that existed were several small buildings, a few made of logs and the rest made of sod. Even the log buildings had grass growing on their roofs. It certainly didn’t give one a sense of security or safety.

“I guess if this is a fort, those must be soldiers.” Lydia responded as she untied her apron string and took off the teapot she carried there.

“Not much to look at.” Steve agreed. “And it looks like they are headed this way.” A few of the soldiers that had been loitering in front of the nearest building separated themselves from the group and sauntered in Steve’s direction.

Their uniforms were barely recognizable due to the accumulation of dust and the number of patches that had been roughly sewn into place. Neither soldier was wearing shoes. They were unshaven and as they came within smelling distance it became obvious that personal hygiene was not high on their list of priorities.

“Hey all!” They said as they sauntered up. The hair on the back of Steve’s neck bristled as he watched them checking out the single sisters.

“How are you?” Steve replied trying to sound cheerful and positive. “Is there a place we can fill our cups with water?”

“Shore is, the well is right there to the north of the buildings.” The soldier speaking turned and pointed. Steve thanked him and turned to the cart to find his cup.

“Ya’ll heading to Utah?” The other soldier asked.

Lydia replied this time, “Yes we are.”

“You ladies pulling this cart the whole way?”

“We are.”

The soldier whistled in amazement. “I’ll bet old Jonesy here couldn’t even do that.” He punched his fellow soldier in the arm and laughed. Jonesy took the ribbing good-naturedly. The sisters now had their cups in hand and were heading for the well leaving Steve with the soldiers.

As soon as the sisters were out of earshot, Jonesy asked Steve, “Anyone in this train have any whiskey? We’re paying a dollar for a half pint.”

Steve shook his head. “Wish I could help you, but we’re all Mormons. Mormons don’t drink alcohol.”

“Dadgum!” The soldier swore, “That’s what the last bunch of them said too.”

“What do you folks do fer fun if ‘un you don’t drink?” Jonesy asked.

Steve was now headed for the well and Jonesy and his buddy were walking along with him. “Well for one thing, we never have hangovers.” Steve replied without thinking too much about it.

“What’s a hang over?” both soldiers asked.

“You know after a night of drinking when you wake up with a headache?” The soldiers both nodded vigorously. “We never get those.”

“Never?” Jonesy’s buddy asked incredulously.

“Never.” Steve replied. One of the soldiers headed back over to the group loitering by the building. The other one, Jonesy, let him go and then turned to Steve.

“There’s one thing I can’t figure out.”

“What’s that?” Steve replied.

“This summer we’ve seen thousands of settlers heading for Oregon or California or Utah. Most of ’em with much better rigs than what you all got here.” He waved toward the carts. Steve smiled and nodded. “And?”

“Just wondering why you all are so much happier than the others?”

Steve stopped and looked at Jonesy. He seemed sincere. Steve forgot about his drink.

“Have you ever heard of the Book of Mormon?”

Jonesy shook his head. Steve motioned to the shade of a large poplar tree.

“Meet me at that tree. I’ll go get one and tell you why we are so happy.”

Jonesy nodded and headed for the tree. Steve sprinted back to his cart and dug through the bundles to find his Book of Mormon. He found it and was heading for the tree as the single sisters returned with their drinks. They called after him.

“Where are you going Elder?”

He turned quickly with a smile and yelled back, “On a mission!”

The company stayed at the fort less than an hour but Steve had time to tell Jonesy what he could remember of the Joseph Smith story, why God needed prophets, and about the Book of Mormon. He showed him where it talked about King Benjamin’s people being filled with joy and was able to pull from his seminary memory the reference for “wickedness never was happiness.” Jonesy ate it up. When the call came for the company to pull out Steve was torn. There was so much more to tell.

“I’ve got to go Jonesy.” He stood up.

“You can call me Bill and thanks for talking to me.” The soldier replied.

“ Listen Bill,” Steve said, “I want you to have this Book of Mormon.” He held the book out for Bill to take.

“I, I can barely read.” Bill replied.

“It’ll come. Use this to practice and don’t forget to pray like Joseph Smith did.” The company was now moving and Steve shoved the book into Bill’s hands and ran. He yelled over his shoulder, “When you get out of the army go to Salt Lake and tell them you want to know more!”

Bill nodded and waved good-bye.

The end of the train had left the Fort by the time Steve reached it. He didn’t care, he felt like he could fly. He yelled greetings to all the saints as he passed them. He’d spend a few minutes helping any one push that looked like they could use a hand and then would jog forward to the next cart. About a half hour later he caught up with the single sisters again and fell in next to Annie who was pushing from behind. He was panting but had a smile from ear to ear.

“You were right!” He said between gasps to Annie.

“Pardon?” Annie replied a little surprised at his sudden appearance.

“It’s not imposing! It is the greatest thing ever!”

“What are you talking about Elder?”

“I just shared the gospel Annie! It was great! At first I was worried about what I was going to say but then it just started coming and Bill loved it! He was eating it up! I remembered scriptures and everything! It was so cool! He let go of the cart and danced a little jig before returning to his position.

“Oh, one thing.” He became suddenly serious and Annie waited to hear what he was going to say.

“Can I borrow your Book of Mormon sometimes? I gave mine to Bill and I still want to read.” Steve waited seriously for Annie response.

“Of course Elder, of course you can borrow my Book of Mormon anytime. So Bill was the soldier?”

“Yeah, the one they were calling Jonesy. His real name is Bill. He’s really a nice guy. At first I thought they were all just drunks but he really wanted to know why we are so happy even though we are so poor.”

“What did you tell him?” Annie asked.

“Well, I started with Joseph Smith. I couldn’t remember exactly which year it happened, but I told him the story. He said he was always wondering too, just like Joseph Smith. Then I--”

Steve got cut short by shouting from the cart ahead.

“Oh quit your complaining! You’ll be all right again when we get a bit of dinner at noon!” Luke was yelling at William who was in the shafts pulling.

“Uh oh, are those two still at it?” Steve said quietly to Annie.

“I’m telling you I can’t go a step further! Let me get out and die!” William retorted. Their cart immediately stopped.

“We better go see if we can help.” Annie quickly said, “Lydia, Elizabeth, pull our cart off to the side of the trail there.” Annie headed for William and Luke. Steve helped the rest of the single sisters get their cart off the trail. He then motioned to Samuel who was helping pull his family’s cart behind to go around.

“We’ll catch up later,” he said to them as they went past. Then he turned his attention to Luke and William.

Luke was tipping the cart back to let William out of the shafts and yelling, “Well, get out and die then!”

William left the trail, walked out in to the prairie grass and laid down. Annie started to follow him. Steve grabbed his cup from the cart, scooped a little water from the bucket, caught Annie quickly and handed it to her. “Here, he might need a drink. I’ll stay with Luke.”

He walked over to Luke who was sitting on a bank of prairie grass next to the trail with his head in his hands. Steve was just trying to figure out what to say to him when he heard a shout from Annie.

“Elder! Get the captain quick! William is dead!”

Steve jumped up, hesitated only for a moment and then sprinted to catch up with the carts at the front of the train. The adrenalin carried him and it didn’t take long until he and the captain were jogging back down the trail.

When they arrived at Annie’s side, William’s eyes were still open and staring off into the distance. The captain kneeled down next to him and gently closed his eyes. Standing he walked over to Luke who had obviously been crying and put his arm around him. Steve, Annie and the other single sisters waited quietly by William’s body. After a few minutes the captain returned to them.

“Elder, can you make room on your cart for William’s body? It is nearly noon. We’ll be stopping for dinner and will make a grave for him there.”

Steve nodded. The captain continued, I’ll help Luke get his cart into camp.” He turned, took Luke by the arm and together they walked back to Luke’s cart and began to make their way up the trail.

Steve looked down at William, then at the faces of the single sisters, then at their cart. He still wasn’t very comfortable with death, nor did he ever want to be but somehow he had to get William’s body onto the cart and into camp.

“Uh, do one of you sisters have a blanket we can use to cover William?” He asked weakly.

“Why don’t we bring the cart over here to load him, rather than carrying the corpse over there?” Lydia asked.

“Great idea!” Steve replied and ran for the cart, glad to have something to do.

They quickly pulled the cart alongside William’s body. Annie dug a quilt from her belongings, which they used to wrap him in, then the sisters lifted at the ends and Steve picked up the middle. It was a bit of a challenge to get him up over the wheel and Steve dropped him a little as he set him down.

“Sorry.” He said a little sheepishly. No one replied and they all returned to their pushing and pulling spots and started down the trail.

Digging graves was something Steve had never even thought about doing before. There was only one shovel in the company and it was short handled. Thankfully the soil under the prairie grass was soft and moist with very few rocks. Steve took his turn with the shovel several times before the hole was deep enough. In fact, Steve took his turn digging graves several times over the course of the next few days. On September 17th an older sister named Sarah died and the very next day another older sister named Sophia passed away.

Death certainly made the pioneers sad, but somehow they didn’t seem to fear it as much as Steve nor were they as uncomfortable with it as he was. It was a part of life and they had obviously had many more personal experiences with it than he ever had.

If the deaths weren’t enough of a reminder to the company that their lives were in God’s hands, the weather certainly got their attention. The day Sarah died a cold wind blew that reminded them all that winter was on the way. As Steve crawled into his bed that night he hoped it was just a fluke and not the beginning of winter.

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