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Submitted by Dave Free on 18 January 2007 - 7:21pm.

Chapter 32

With Laramie Peak looming down on them from the west, the Martin Handcart company left Fort Laramie on the ninth of October, eighteen hundred and fifty six. The rolling hills of the prairie quickly gave way to the peaks, canyons and ravines of the black hills. The toll on the carts was felt immediately. Breakdowns became even more frequent as the brittle carts bumped over rocks and crashed down steep inclines. As if the rough roads weren't enough, the saints began to feel the drain of climbing as they pushed their carts up the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The weather also took a turn for the worse. Pleasant days and cool evenings became cold days and freezing nights.

Just as the company members needed more calories to deal with the added strains of the rough trail and colder weather, rations were cut to twelve ounces per day from the original pound. Captain Martin calculated the days it would take to cover the distance to the Salt Lake Valley and compared it to the days of flour left. A pound a day per person left them short of their destination so the rations were reduced to increase their odds of survival.

Steve did the best he could for his families. He added the biscuits and bacon he had purchased at the fort to the rations. He was amazed how much difference just a small piece of very salty bacon made in his energy level and attitude. By the time each night rolled around he was wasted. Sleep came quickly but he rarely slept deeply or peacefully. He was never really cold at night, but he never got really warm either and he would wake several times throughout the night, which left him exhausted to start the new day. But there was no choice but to keep moving. Others were depending on him.

Just three days out of Fort Laramie, Steve's carts were bringing up the rear of the train. The sisters' cart came down hard off a rock ledge. There was a loud crack and the right wheel fell off, leaving the cart to topple to the side and dump all of the sisters’ belongings on the shale-strewn trail. Steve quickly ran up to the cart to survey the damage. The axle had broken. Certainly more than he could repair by himself. He looked up the trail and saw the last cart crest the next hill and disappear. The sun was halfway down the western sky. He looked around at his people. Their faces were all drawn and tired. He had to make a quick decision. If they all waited here, no telling how long it would be before the company missed them and sent back help. If he let the rest of them wait with the broken cart while he ran ahead, they might end up spending the night alone or having to walk in the dark to camp.

Little baby Steve cried in his mother's arms. Steve made his decision.

"We're going to need a new axle. We don't have one here. Let's load what we can of the sisters' possessions on the other three carts. I'll stay here with whatever we can't load up. The rest of you go on ahead. As soon as you get into camp, tell the captain where I am and that I need an axle. He'll send someone back to help me."

There were a few objections. Annie's were the most vocal. She insisted she or someone else be allowed to stay to keep him company. Steve refused knowing that it would take every able-bodied person just to get the remaining carts into camp. She finally agreed after a few private words with Steve. The sisters most important belongings were quickly distributed among the other three carts and the pioneers set off leaving Steve with a few blankets, the makings for a fire, and a broken down handcart.

"Stay together!" Steve yelled as they trundled off, "And don't worry about me. I'll be fine!" Then to himself in a lower voice he added, "just fine."

He headed off the trail to the nearest stand of trees and began breaking dead limbs off the trees. By the time the sun went down he had a large stack of firewood by the cart ready to keep him company for the night. In the dim light of dusk with a blanket over his shoulders and his hands red from the cold and the hauling of wood he huddled over a little spark and gently blew it to life. The grass and kindling he had carefully prepared were extremely dry and the fire took right to it. He fed in larger sticks and soon had a bright fire burning. Steve scanned for a couple of rocks suitable for a back rest and was soon sitting comfortably next to the fire gnawing on a Fort Laramie biscuit and sipping water from a tin cup. He had no idea if the captain would send someone back during the night or if he would wait till morning, but either way he planned on keeping the fire going all night so he would be easy to find, warm, and protected from whatever was out in the dark.

He must have dozed off. His eyes opened wide but he laid still. It only took him an instance to remember where he was. Something woke him up. The fire was down to hot embers. Steve scanned the darkness without moving. A wolf howled, loud and clear and very close by. Steve jumped up grabbed the nearest stick from the pile and looked in the direction of the howl. He could see nothing. He kept his eyes focused on the direction of the howl but started to load more wood on the fire. Soon it was roaring again and Steve began to regain his confidence.

"Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf!” He sang at the top of his lungs. “Come and get me if you dare!" He thought he saw movement out the corner of this eye. He turned quickly and saw two shiny eyes reflecting the fire light not more than twenty feet away. He slowly bent down, picked up a baseball size rock and gave it a throw. The rock bounced harmlessly on the shale of the hillside but the two eyes disappeared.

"Looks like I'm not the only hungry one tonight." He said out loud and began looking for throwing rocks near the fire. As soon as he had a nice pile of rocks ready for the next visit, he picked up his blankets, wrapped them around his shoulders and returned to his sitting position.

"Come on back, old wolf!" He called, "let's play catch."

He stayed awake the rest of the night throwing rocks and feeding the fire. Just as the eastern sky was becoming light a voice hailed Steve from the West. "Hallo the fire! Is that you Elder?"

"It's me!” He called back, “and an old wolf that tried to eat me last night!" Steve threw the last of his rocks out into the woods. He'd had several good shots at the old boy during the night. Only one of his rocks reached its target. The wolf yelped but was back again within a few minutes to try again. Samuel and the company carpenter came up to Steve's fire quickly and began to warm themselves.

"Sorry it took so long Elder." The carpenter was saying, "We were up the better part of the night taking care of all the other repairs. Got here as soon as we could. If it wasn't for your friend Samuel here, I'd have been sleeping soundly back there on the trail several times."

"Thanks for coming. I didn't sleep much last night either--an over zealous wolf. I wish I could give you a warm breakfast, but I've got nothing to offer."

"Oh, I almost forgot." Samuel said, "Here is a biscuit from Annie. She said to make sure you got it." Samuel handed the biscuit to Steve and added, "She sure is sweet on you."

Steve smiled, broke the biscuit into three pieces and handed a piece to Samuel and one to the carpenter. "Yeah, we're just like family." He replied before stuffing the biscuit in his mouth. The carpenter was now looking at the cart wheel. He asked Samuel for the axle they brought with them. By the time the sun was shining on them, both wheels were back on and the remainder of the sisters’ belongings were loaded up ready to go. Steve kicked dirt on the fire and they set off.

"How far is camp?" Steve asked.

"About five miles." The carpenter replied. "The captain is very anxious to waste no time. He told me that they wouldn't wait for us but expected that with the three of us and a light cart we could keep up."

"Alright then, let's go find them." Steve was between the traces in the front and the other two were pushing from behind. The reduced weight in the cart made a significant difference. Even though they were all tired and hadn't slept the night before, they moved along quickly and made their way easily over obstacles that would have been impossible with a fully loaded cart.

Steve was enjoying the relative ease of the journey and contemplating his night with the wolf when he lookup up from the trail and saw a great billow of black smoke rising ahead of them. He pointed it out to the others. "What do you think it is?" He asked over his shoulder? "Our camp fires don't put out that kind of smoke. Does it look like it is coming from camp?"

"Hard to say." The carpenter replied.

"Could be." Added Sam.

"You don't think it is Indians do you?" Steve asked, his concern growing. Neither of the others replied but without saying anything they all began walking faster and then broke into a jog. The unloaded cart bounced and crashed over the rocks on the trail. Steve worried they might break another axle, but they kept running. Fifteen minutes later they rolled into what had been camp panting and sweating. There were no carts and no pioneers but the remains of four or five large fires still giving off black smoke.

"What the?" Steve stopped the cart and lifted the traces so he could walk out from under them. The three of them wandered about the camp and examined each of the fires. There were bits and pieces of just about everything imaginable in the remains of the fire. Blankets, buffalo skins, household utensils, even the remains of a few books could be seen smoldering.

"What do you think happened?" Samuel asked Steve and the Carpenter as their wanderings brought them back within hearing distance.

"I don't see any blood, or any signs of a struggle." The carpenter replied.

"Me either." Steve agreed. "But for some reason they burned lots of things."

"Must be the weight." The carpenter said suddenly. "We had so many carts to repair last night, the captain talked about reducing weight so we'd have less breakdowns and could move faster. They must have done it this morning."

"But blankets and buffalo robes?" Steve asked. "It's getting colder and we're burning our only protection from the cold?"

The carpenter shrugged. "You saw how fast we were able to move with the light cart this morning. Blankets and buffalo robes weigh a lot."

Steve didn't answer. He was a big advocate of moving faster to beat the winter, but he was really worried about staying warm. "Well, we better get after them. They'll be moving faster now." The others agreed and they headed back to the handcart.

The carpenter was right. They caught up to the tail of the company just before dinner and got the full story as they prepared and ate their meager meal. Weight limits had been dropped from seventeen to ten pounds including bedding and cooking utensils. Children were limited to five. Everything else was burned. Many very difficult decisions were made and most had no choice but to give up a blanket or two. Rations were also cut again, this time to half a pound of flour per day.

Strong fathers, who had carried and pulled their families for hundreds of miles and sacrificed their rations for their loved ones, now began to pay the price. Steve spent the majority of his days and energy helping Aaron and Elizabeth with their cart. Aaron seemed to be growing weaker each day, yet still did all that he had once done. The women, children and animals also suffered. Feed for the oxen that had been plentiful out on the prairie became scarce. Even when an animal was butchered, there was very little to eat. Those animals that did survive were so weak they could pull little and began to slow the company.

Two days after the weight limit was reduced, Steve struggled to sleep at all. He tossed and turned in his blankets unable to quiet his thoughts long enough to sleep. When a sudden gust caught the tent door and sent it flapping in the wind, Steve gave up. It was nowhere near dawn, but he was too cold to hope for any more sleep. He rose and made his way to the tent door. A brutally cold blast took his breath away as he stepped out of the tent. This was a new level of cold and with the wind it cut right through his rough clothes. He went back in the tent, grabbed his sleeping blankets and his bag and then stepped out into the cold. He had been using Annie's Book of Mormon each evening to read but had returned it to her before bed. He wished he had it now. He reached in his bag and pulled out the empty journal. Maybe if he wrote his thoughts down they would leave him alone. He tossed the mostly empty bag in the nearest cart and wrapped his blankets around his shoulders. No one else in the camp seemed to be moving but there was a fire burning on the edge of camp. He made his way towards it.

He had a sense of foreboding. He couldn't put his finger on it, but it was there. Certainly there was plenty to be concerned about. He didn't know how much longer he could keep going and was sure he was in much better shape than most of those in the company. But today something was different; maybe it was the intense cold. Steve looked up to the sky but there wasn't enough light to tell if there were clouds or not. He suspected there were. He walked into the light of the fire. He didn't realize it was Captain Martin's until he stepped up to it and held out his hands to warm them.

"Evening!" The captain said, looking up.

"Mind if I borrow some of your heat?" Steve asked.

"Glad for the company." The captain replied.

Steve looked at the captain and smiled. Even in the firelight he could clearly see how much the captain had aged over the past few months. He stood facing the fire for a few minutes warming his hands then turned and warmed his back.

"Trouble sleeping?" The captain asked.

Steve turned back around. "Not sure what it is, but my thoughts just keep racing."

"Mine too." The captain replied. "I just keep asking what else?"

"Pardon me?"

"I'm constantly wondering if there is something else we can or should be doing." The captain said, then added, "--to save these people."

Steve thought for a moment. It was obvious that the captain was bearing a tremendous burden and he didn't want to add to it. "I think we are doing all we can sir. We've reduced our weight. I don't see any way we could move any faster or survive on any less."

"We may have to." The captain replied. "Just did the calculations again. Our flour won't hold out much more than a week at the current rate."

"A week?" Steve said. The pit in the bottom of his stomach opened wide.

The captain nodded. "Even with the reduced weight, we just haven't been able to make the progress we need to. Our best hope--our only hope is that Elder Richards has arrived in Salt Lake and is sending help."

"How long would that take?" Steve asked.

"Best case, I think he might have made it to Salt Lake by the third or fourth of October. Maybe a few days to a week to get wagons loaded and start back. We're still four hundred miles from the valley. If the weather holds and they can do twenty miles a day, that is still twenty days to get to us. Probably end of October--best case. Also have to figure that the Willie Company is between here and the valley and they are going to need help as well. That will cause some delay."

"What is the date today?" Steve asked quietly.

"The nineteenth." The captain replied. Steve whistled. The captain nodded then asked. "Remember our discussion back in Iowa City Elder?"

"Seems like a life time ago." Steve replied.

"You said you had seen the future and that many handcart pioneers die." Steve just nodded and the captain continued, "I hope it is not these pioneers Elder, but I would be lying if I told you I wasn't very worried."

Steve's mind began racing. There had to be some way to help all of these people survive. "So what if we just stayed put? Set up our tents more permanently, conserved our energy and waited for help to arrive?"

"I've thought of that, but we're not even sure help is coming. If it doesn't, we would all starve to death in a matter of weeks. Even if it does come and find us here, there is no way they could bring enough food for all of these people to survive the winter. Our only hope for survival is to get to the valley. Every day we can move, is one day closer to any rescue that may come, and to the valley. No Elder, we have no choice but to keep moving. As much as we would all like to just sit down, moving is the only thing that will save us." The captain stood now and turned his back to Steve and the fire to warm his backside. Steve turned as well. After a few moments he turned back around.


The captain turned back around and looked at Steve.

"I just want you to know that I think you are doing a great job." Steve stammered a little, not used to giving such compliments but knowing that it needed to be done.

The captain smiled. "Thanks Elder. That means a lot to me. Well I'm going to try one more time to get some sleep. Big day tomorrow. Good night." The captain turned and walked toward his tent.

Steve watched him go and then took out the journal and began to write.

October 19, 1856, Somewhere in Wyoming--

I write because I’m too cold to sleep and too tired to keep remembering. I used to think it was a dream. If it is, I’m on the verge of never waking up. My brain hurts. Memories of my “past life” disappear now as fast as the cup of flour that I eat each day. I’m done struggling with the memories; there is too much to struggle with here and now. So I write. If I don’t survive, I hope someone will find what I have written and benefit. If I do survive, maybe in a warmer more comfortable time, it will all make sense.

Very cold tonight. There is little to keep us warm. We burned most of our heavy blankets on the trail a few days back to lighten our loads.

Those times that I was warm still burn the brightest in my memory. The names and faces of those that were closest are all that remains.

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