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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Dave Free on 18 January 2007 - 7:23pm.

Chapter 33

The biting cold of the morning never lifted and the clouds became darker and hovered lower and lower. The company got on the trail in good time and crept forward into the cold wind. Every available scrap of cloth or material was wrapped around hands, feet, and faces to try to keep them warm. Steve consoled himself and those that were near enough to hear his voice with the fact that at least there was no snow or rain and they were dry. When the carts in front of them began to pull off the trail and stop, Steve tried to get a read on time from the sun but the clouds were so thick there was no way to tell where it was in the sky.

"Seems a little early for dinner." He mentioned to Elizabeth and Aaron as they pushed their cart off the trail to see why everyone was stopping.

"Not dinner, Elder” Lydia said, "It's a river crossing."

"Are you serious?" Steve left his carts and ran ahead. The trail climbed to the top of a little embankment and many of the pioneers were now lining the top of it looking at what lay ahead. Steve joined them. The site was crushing.

The trail dropped down the opposite side of the embankment into a wide, deep, and fast moving river. Not only was the current moving fast, it was carrying chunks of ice and slush with it. Steve's body involuntarily shuddered. He knew from the winter camping that he had done as a scout that getting wet in freezing temperatures was death. How could they possibly cross this river now and survive? He scanned the growing crowd of pioneers. No one was anxious to be the first to go into the freezing water. Captain Martin stood away from the crowd, down near the river.

"Is it the Platte again?" Samuel was now standing beside Steve and asked the question. Most of the rest of Steve's people had followed him onto the embankment.

"I think so." Steve said.

"I don't think I can do this, Elder." It was one of the single sisters.

Steve turned and looked at her and the other faces surrounding him. He took a deep breath of the cold air. He wasn't sure he could do it either, but something welled up inside him. Instead of agreeing with the sister he said, "We can do this." Quiet at first, he said it again louder, nearly shouting. "We can do this! You can do this!" Pioneers that had been anxiously looking at the river now turned to look at Steve.

"I know that you are cold. I know that many of you have nothing left to give, but you can do this! I know you can because I have seen the future. I have seen your children and your children's grandchildren live true to the gospel because of what you have done, what you will do here today and what you will do in the future. The faith you have will not only save you, it will save generations to come that will tell and retell the stories of your suffering and faith here on this trail!" Steve paused for a minute, not sure where the words were coming from but knowing that he had to go on. He continued, "Though some of us may die, our story and our faith will not. This church will continue to grow and this story--your story--will be told throughout the world for hundreds of years. Converts from Africa to Hong Kong to your homelands will be inspired by your faith and courage here today. What you do today, right now will give them the faith and courage they need to cross their own cold rivers. You can do this, I know that you can, because I have heard your stories."

Steve paused again and smiled. There was nothing more to say. He took the single sister by the hand and said, "C'mon, I'll carry you."

At the waters edge he took off his boots and socks and handed them to the sister. "Keep these dry for me, I'll need them on the other side."

After the first few steps into the cold water, the final crossing of the Platte was a blur for Steve. The softball size river stones along the bottom of the river were nearly impossible to walk on. He slipped many times and had to catch himself by putting his hands down. In the deepest sections the river came up to Steve's waist. The current was strong and with each crossing he would drift slightly down river and have to walk back up to start again. He carried as many as needed a ride and helped pull and push carts that were in need. He lost track of his own people entering the river. At one point he recognized Aaron sitting on a sandbar in the middle of the river worn out and unable to go any farther. Before Steve could get to him, others helped him across. He saw Samuel's mom enter the river with her little son Richard on her shoulders. He wanted to go help her but already had someone on his back. As he dropped off his passenger on the opposite shore and turned to go back for more he heard shouting down the river and saw Richard and his mom being dragged away by the current. Some were shouting at her to let go of her son and save herself but she wouldn't do it. Steve started to run with the current toward them but slipped and fell. Others ran down the shoreline. Samuel's mom continued to fight the current and finally got close enough to grab the hands reaching out to her. Both she and Richard were pulled to safety.

After a time, Steve forgot where he was. Even after the last pioneer was across, he turned and tried to head back for more. The captain and Samuel grabbed him.

"It's done Elder! It's done!" The captain was yelling at him.

Steve looked back at him with blank eyes. "My family is over there!" He yelled. "I've got to go back to them!" He tried to tear away, but Samuel held him tight. Annie came running over to help. She had also rescued a young boy who had been swept away by the current. She was wet and shivering.

"Elder, Elder! Look at me Elder! It's Annie!" Steve looked right through her and said nothing. "He's got dementia!" She yelled at the Captain and Samuel. "We've got to keep him walking and get him warm somehow!" The two men walked him up the embankment toward the carts. Steve's legs just dragged. The single sisters had built a fire as soon as they were across and had a little broth warming. Annie called for a cup of it and gently held it to Steve's lips. He resisted. Cold sleet began to fall in great sheets from the dark sky. The captain looked up.

"I'm sorry,” he said to Annie, “but I've got to get the company moving."

"It's alright, I've got him." Sam said, "You go." The captain left and began calling for the pioneers to move.

Sam tried to hold Steve up, but it was too much. They both collapsed on the ground. Annie dropped down next to them, warm tears mixing with the cold sleet on her cheeks. Sam got back on his feet and began trying to lift Steve again.

"It's ok Sam. It's ok. Could you get his blankets for me?" Annie said through her tears.

Sam ran toward the carts to find Steve's blankets. Annie held Steve's head in her lap. She held the cup to his lips and poured a little in his mouth. Steve sputtered.

"Steve! Steve! Can you hear me?" Annie sobbed.

Steve began to feel warm. It was such a nice feeling; he had almost forgotten what it was like. He didn't want to move. Just stay put and enjoy the warmth, like a Sunday afternoon nap on the couch. He began to hear music--singing. Sounded like he always imagined angels would sound. Kind of like the tabernacle choir. Oh, it felt good to be warm!

"Steve! Steve!" Somebody was calling him. The pain instantly returned. He was cold. So cold, but he couldn't feel his legs. Cold darts were hitting his face. He tried to find the warm place again but it wasn't there. He opened his eyes. It was Annie. He tried to smile at her but he was so cold.

"Steve can you hear me?" She asked.

"Hey, you called me Steve." He whispered.

"Oh Steve is that you?" Annie hugged him.

"Sorry, still me." Steve tried to smile again.

"For a minute I thought I had lost you." Annie said.

"You can't lose me Annie. We're family."

"You did it Steve. You did it." Annie said.

"What?"

"You found your message. You are a messenger from God."

Steve tried to smile again. “Maybe,” he whispered. The warm sensation was beginning to return. He so wanted to be warm. "I've got to go Annie.” He reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.

Annie fought the desire to keep him. “I’ll miss you.” She said.

Steve opened his eyes again and smiled. “I love you grandma."

She bent over and kissed him on the forehead. "I love you too."

There was no more pain. It didn't gradually go away, it was just gone. Steve could hear the singing again. He decided that angels did sound a lot like the tabernacle choir. He started looking around for a bright light. In death there was always a bright light that one was supposed to walk towards. He didn't want to miss his bright light. The singing stopped and someone began to speak. It sounded like a voice he would hear in church or conference. He was glad it sounded like conference. He hoped that meant he was going to be waiting in paradise and not prison. Still no light. He began to listen to the voice. It mentioned the Martin handcart company. He strained to hear and understand. The voice continued:

"Those who set out on the long journey from the British Isles to the valley of the Great Salt Lake began their travel in faith. They had little or no knowledge of what they were getting into. But they moved forward. They began their journey with great expectation. That expectation gradually failed them as they moved west. As they commenced the tedious journey following the Platte River and then up the valley of the Sweetwater, the cold hand of death took its fearsome toll. Their food was rationed; their oxen died; their carts broke down; they had inadequate bedding and clothing. Storms raged. They sought shelter, but they found none. The storms beat about them. They literally starved to death. Scores died and were buried in the frozen ground."

Annie! Steve looked around for her. He tried to call out. Where was she and the rest of his people? Where was he? The voice went on:

"When the rescuers reached the beleaguered Saints, they were like angels from heaven. People wept tears of gratitude. The handcart people were transferred into wagons so they could travel more quickly to the Salt Lake community. Some two hundred died, but a thousand were saved. What a story it is. It is filled with suffering and hunger and cold and death. It is replete with accounts of freezing rivers that had to be waded through; of howling blizzards; of the long, slow climb up Rocky Ridge. With the passing of this anniversary year, it may become largely forgotten. But hopefully it will be told again and again to remind future generations of the suffering and the faith of those who came before. Their faith is our inheritance. Their faith is a reminder to us of the price they paid for the comforts we enjoy."

Steve started to cry. Two hundred of his friends died. He sobbed great sobs. His whole body shuddered.

"Steve? Steve?" A voice was calling him again. He resisted. He didn't want to return to the cold and the pain.

"Steve can you hear me?" He finally gave in and opened his eyes a crack. He slammed them shut again. There was the bright light he had been looking for. "It helps to open your eyes.” He thought to himself.

"Steve? Steve, it's me. Steve, it’s Mom. Can you hear me?"

"Mom?" Steve opened his eyes just a crack. His mom smiled down at him. She was wearing white and looked like an angel to Steve. "Mom are you dead too?"

"No, I'm not dead son and neither are you!" His mom was now crying.

A flood of memories that he had forced down came back to Steve in a rush. "Mom, I am so sorry I hurt you!"

"I know Steve, I know, it's ok. The important thing is you are here. I've got to call your father." She gave him a big hug. Steve inhaled deeply.

"I love you mom."

"I love you too son."



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