Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Christmas Gift to Readers

As a gift to you all, here is a short story I wrote several years ago. It will be part of a future novel.


She was a lone woman in the wagon train now, and it made my heart ache to see her standing there by the flickering campfire, leaning slightly forward in her anxiety to learn the captain’s decision. Hers was a slim figure in the uncertain light, and that was as it should be, for she couldn’t be over eighteen, and had only borne one child that I knew anything about.

Her husband had taken sick with a fever a few days back, and it had worsened until last night. Now he lay out under the prairie sod, and she was left a widow with a son just beginning to walk.

She stood there, trembling slightly, as the captain of ten families, John Armstrong, looked up at her from under his bushy eyebrows as he sat on a keg of flour. He had an air of resignation about him as he tossed the stick he had been whittling into the fire.

“Sister Porter, you may think it a harsh thing, but I got to think of all the families in my care. Now that Brother Porter’s gone, I got to turn you back to Winter Quarters. It’s just two weeks back, and I’ll send a couple of men along on horseback to see you get there safe.” He stopped and looked into the fire, then shrugged his shoulders. “You can go to Zion next season, when you get someone to take charge of your wagon.”

Captain Armstrong fumbled with his clasp knife, then stuffed it into his vest pocket. Sister Porter twisted her hands in the cloth of her apron. The captain looked miserably up at her bleak face, then cleared his throat.

“It’s not that I don’t want you to go to Zion, but a lone woman can’t manage this trek by herself,” he said.

I don’t know what pushed me out into that firelight. Maybe it was the look of despair on her face. Maybe it was that I was all alone too, and knew the pain of loss that was in her heart. At any rate, step out I did, and me a shy young man.

“Captain Armstrong, I don’t have the burden of a wagon to tend to. Allow me to look after the Widow Porter. I’ll see that she keeps up with the others.”

I knew that all the eyes of the assembled Saints of the company were suddenly swung my way, and I blushed in their combined gaze. But the most important glance came from the blue eyes of the young widow. Her look held surprise, but solace was there too, and I felt the hot blush fading from my face. Maybe my act of kindness would give me a feeling of belonging to this company of travelers

“Brother Marshall, if it won’t put you out of your way, I’m sure Sister Porter will be thankful for your help.” Relief spread over John Armstrong’s wide face, and I thought he was glad that my words had made his decision unnecessary. He got up from his keg and disappeared in the darkness.

I turned to the widow, and she was staring at me, curiosity in her look, but a wariness too, for she had just that day put her husband into the ground, and I figured my offer was making her a bit uncomfortable, for all its value to her.

I doffed my old black hat and nodded to her, shyness overcoming my tongue of a sudden, and whisking my words away.

“I thank you for your kindness,” she rescued me. “I know that Captain Armstrong meant well, but I can’t wait another year to go to Zion. I promised him I’d go on,” she finished in a whisper.

Her face twisted a bit, and I feared she would cry, but she mastered the emotion and calmed her countenance again.

I found my tongue. “Is there anything you need doing tonight?”

“No. Now that my future’s settled, I can get on with supper. Won’t you come to the fire and eat, after a while?”

“I’d like that. You can tell me what to do tomorrow.”

I turned away and tended to the needs of my animals. The work gave me a chance to reflect on what I had talked myself into doing. Here I was, a lone man on the way to the Rocky Mountains, and I had taken upon myself the care of a woman and her child, and the responsibility of getting her safe to the Great Salt Lake Valley. And I was only twenty years of age.

Several years back, two missionaries of the Latter-day Saints had come a-preaching in our neighborhood. My father, a God-fearing man, had made them welcome. Though our friends and our kin had scoffed at their message, we had not, and we joined ourselves with the Saints through a ceremony of baptism.

Then the persecutions had begun, and soon a yearning had come upon us to gather to Zion, so we sold the farm and loaded our goods into a wagon. We were five: my father James Marshall, my mother Emily, my younger brother John, our sister Mary Eliza, and myself.

We arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois, to the devastating news that the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother had been murdered. Despite our grief, we settled in the city for a while, working on the temple, then were driven out in the deep of winter with other Saints.

On February 26, 1846, we crossed the Mississippi River on a covering of ice, and arrived at Sugar Creek Camp. Here we were within sight of our abandoned home, which caused my mother much sorrow. I was relieved when Brother Brigham Young counseled us to move on.

After several days of travel, we camped on the banks of the Chariton River. Father was one of those sent out to trade extra goods for grain and flour. Then we moved on again, first to Garden Grove, and then to Mount Pisgah.

We were asked to stay and raise grain for the Saints who would follow after us. My obedient father settled in and assisted with the planting, until an outbreak of cholera took him, my mother, and my brother John.

Mary Eliza was the only family left to me, and since she was but six years of age, I found her a place with a family in Mount Pisgah, sold what belongings I had no need of, and went south to Missouri to buy myself a horse, and mules to carry our supplies.

I had thought, being a mere youth, that I could get my animals and be out of that unfriendly state before it was discovered that I was what they were calling “a Mormon.” I was wrong.

When I recovered consciousness, I found myself penniless. A farmer—who didn’t care how or if I worshipped God—took me in and put me to work. I spent a year with him, gathering funds for those Missouri mules I wanted. Then a hunger came over me to see my sister again, so I got my wages, bought my animals, and journeyed back to Mount Pisgah.

I arrived to find that my sister and the family keeping her had started for the Rocky Mountains. I followed her to Winter Quarters, but she had already left there, and the season was so advanced that I could not leave for the west.

Although I chafed with disappointment at missing her, I spent the fall and winter making ready for the journey, and left in the spring as a part of this large company.

My year among the Gentiles, as those not of our faith were then known, had caused a few words to be spoken against me by those less charitable than most, and I found myself ill at ease on some days. But for the most part, the company of ten families headed by Captain Armstrong, in which I traveled, was composed of good people. The problem that rubbed me wrong was that they were mostly friends of long standing, and I was a newcomer, and young enough to imagine myself unwelcome.

When I finished caring for my horse and mules, I found my way to the widow’s fire and accepted a plate from her hand.

I could not be sure, due to the dancing of the small light cast by her fire, but it seemed to me that Sister Porter’s eyes were a bit swollen and reddened, and my heart went out to her in her grief. That she had prepared a meal for herself and her boy, and for a stranger too, was a thing of no small moment to me, and I admired her for her determination to endure to the end, no matter what the cost.

As I ate, I glanced up at Sister Porter from time to time, and once I caught her brushing a tear from her cheek. She turned her head, and I knew she was aware of my look.

I felt powerless in that moment. There was no way that I, a stranger, could ease her sorrow. I ducked my head to my meal once again, resolving to find a way to reach out and relieve her pain.

When I had eaten the last morsel from the tin plate, I stood up and took it and my cup over to the washtub sitting atop a barrel. I removed my hat and rolled up my sleeves before she realized that I had intention of washing the dishes.

She stood and came to the washtub as I plunged my hands into the water.

“Brother Marshall.” Her voice held a note of distress. “That’s my duty. I will clear up.”

I looked down at her and smiled in a way I hoped was reassuring.

“I have long practice of the task, Sister. Let me take this way of paying you back for the meal. It was far better fare than I usually can stir up.” I smiled again, hoping she would not press further to do the job herself.

She returned to her seat and picked up her son. I circled the tub until I could look up and see her ever so often. I was curious to know her feelings, since she remained silent so long.

“Why did you speak up to help me?” Her gaze was direct, and it disturbed me. “No one else, not even my friends, said a word.”

The question was unexpected, and I took my time to answer.

“I haven’t fully figured it out yet.” I shook the water from the last cup and wiped it with a flour sack. “I imagine it was because you were all alone, and I remember how I felt to be suddenly alone.” I rubbed my hands dry on the sack.

“Your wife died?”

My ears burned.

“I never had a wife. It was my folks and my brother I lost, back in Mount Pisgah. They got took by the cholera.”

“I’m sorry.” She hugged her son close. “I don’t even know your name, beyond ‘Brother Marshall’.”

“It’s Elijah Marshall. Most folks just call me ‘Lije’.”

“Folks call me ‘Etta’. That’s short for ‘Henrietta’.”

My hat was on my head now, and I felt I ought to go, but I could tell she hungered for conversation, so I stayed.

“That’s a fine name. Puts me in mind of our old farm. There was a girl down the road name of Etta.”

“I’ve never heard of anybody named Elijah, except the Bible prophet. Did your folks give you his name?”

“My pa and ma were God-fearing folk, but they really named me for my grandpa Elijah Scow.”

She smiled. I felt good that something I said brought pleasure to her.

“I expect I’d best get along,” I said. “You’ll be needing to tuck that youngster in bed before long.” I stood up.

“Wait . . . Lije.”

A wonder came over me to hear a woman of her station call my name. I wasn’t prepared for that, somehow, even after we exchanged names.

She continued. “We didn’t talk about what needs doing tomorrow.”

“That’s right, ma’am.”

“Please sit down.”

I sat.

“I won’t need you to drive the team. I learned to do that while Joshua—Brother Porter—lay sick.” She stopped for a moment, and I saw the pain in her eyes.

After a time I said, “I dislike seeing you walk when you could ride on the seat with the child. Captain Armstrong will think I went back on my word.”

“If he says anything, I will make sure he knows different. I won’t be a burden to anyone. Please just keep your eye out for trouble.” Then her voice lowered in pitch. “Could you lend a hand crossing the rivers? I—” She looked down for a moment. “I have a fear of water.”

“I’ll watch out for you. I’ve put my word to it.”

I was invited to her supper fire every night for a week, and I enjoyed our conversations and playing with her son. Once he looked at his mother and said, “Mama.” Then he pointed to me and called out, “Papa!”

I know I colored some as I took him into my arms and replied, “No, I’m Lije.”

That night, Sister Porter asked me to join her in evening prayer, and afterward said it was a comfort to have someone nearby to share that special time. I was glad the fire had died and she couldn’t see my reddened face.

The same evening, as I was walking to my bed, I overheard a woman speaking to her husband from underneath a wagon box.

“ . . . him a Gentile-lover, and her man just laid to rest, too. It’s a scandal, I say. You ought to speak to the Captain.”

I stood pegged to the spot, shaking with the anger that rose in me, then I fled to my camp. After that, I didn’t eat so often with the widow, meaning to spare her from the wicked tongue of that woman.

Then one night Sister Porter came to my camp with her son as I laid my fire.

“Lije, have I offended you? It seems that lately I can’t get you to eat with us. Joseph misses you.” She bent her head and kissed the child.

I got up from my task. “Sister Porter, I—”

She cut me off. “There’s plenty in the kettle. I miss talking to you. Please come.”

I weighed the problem of her need for friendly talk against the gossip sure to be caused by my presence in her camp, and wondered if she knew about the woman’s vicious words.

“Please,” she repeated. “It seems that no one but you will speak to me. I think they’re afraid to hurt my feelings in case they accidentally mention Joshua.”

So the poison is spreading, I thought. I tried to conceal my anger from her, not wanting her to guess the real reason behind the silence she was experiencing. Then I made my choice, vowing to not leave her to suffer in a silent void, despite the wagging tongue.

“I’ll come to eat, but you must share my supplies from now on. I’ve eaten more than my portion of yours.”

Her voice was soft as she answered. “You know I have plenty since—”

“I’ll not eat up your goods,” I replied, a trifle hotly. “You’ll need the extra when you get to Zion, else you’ll starve.” Then I wished to bite off my hasty tongue, as I could see my words brought to her mind that she had no man to fend for her, and she winced at the thought. “Etta, I’m sorry.”

I stepped back a pace. I had called her by her Christian name, and it surprised me to do it.

“I know you don’t mean me harm. You’re right to counsel me to caution. I have been thinking what I can do to earn my way when I reach the Valley, but I fear my talents are few, and they suit me only to be a farmer’s wife.”

I stared at her, fighting down the impulse to comfort her in my arms. I had called her ‘Etta,’ and something within me grew. I hardly heard her words as I tried to stop the growing bubble by reminding myself that just weeks past she had been the wife of another man, but the feeling expanded still, and I had no power to suppress it.

“Since I will share your meal tonight, I’ll bring along my fire.” I stooped and gathered the fuel I had laid, more to hide my face than from her need for fuel, then I preceded her to her camp.

The next day, after I yoked her oxen, I put my foodstuffs into her wagon, and redistributed the load of my belongings on the two mules. On the way back to where I’d left my horse, I saw one woman whispering behind her hand to another, and I sidestepped out of their sight. Let them talk, I thought. I’m only keeping to my duty.

The river swung into the path of our westward progress later that week, and I stopped on a rise to gaze at the watery obstacle. Brush and a few trees grew on the banks of the river, but there was clear evidence of a ford that had been used the past season.

Remembering the fear Etta had expressed to me, I hurried toward her wagon. She had halted on the top of the bank, waiting her turn to enter the water while the first company of ten crossed over.

I pulled up my animals alongside her, and looked down into her frightened eyes.

“Oh Lije, I can’t drive them over. My hands are shaking just to think about that current.” She clasped her hands over the ox goad.

“I’m here,” I answered, and took my leg from the stirrup. I swung down, then led my horse and mules to the rear of the wagon, where I tied them to the tailgate. At her side again, I took the shaking goad from Etta’s hands, and boosted her to the wagon seat. She loosed a small sigh, and I glanced up to her tight face, grinning to lighten her mood, and saw that some of the pallor was fleeing as she regained color. The corners of her mouth tried to respond to my grin, but her effort was what some folks might call wan.

“You set easy now. I’ll get us safely across.” I started to go forward to the lead team, then returned and looked around for her son. “Where’s Joseph?”

She gestured behind the seat. “He’s asleep. I hope he’ll nap through the crossing.”

When our turn finally came, I urged the oxen into the water. Although they didn’t favor getting wet, they had nothing against slaking their thirst, and part of the way across, one of the lead animals quit pulling and dipped his head into the stream.

This action surprised the other beasts, and their agitation at the unexpected stop caused the front of the wagon to tip forward a bit. It wasn’t much, but Etta lost her hold on the seat, and fell in the river. She landed flat on her front, then rolled as the current caught her. I dropped my ox goad and plunged after her.

I’d swum some in our pond back home, but that water didn’t grab at your arms like this did. I concentrated on reaching Etta, who was about ten yards out of my grasp. I heard her splashes as she struggled against the swift current, trying even in her terror to keep her head in the air as the water tumbled her around. From time to time I heard a sound from her, a strangling gurgle as she surfaced.

I made a great effort to swim with long strokes, keeping in the middle of the current so that it would carry me toward Etta. Then the muddy water swirled as it tugged me down, but I fought to keep my own head up, conscious that my sodden clothes and heavy boots were a danger to me. I was tiring, and gasping to get breath, but I labored on and pulled closer to her.

Then I was alongside her, she grabbed me around the neck, and I thought we were doomed to drown. I cried out, “Etta, please!” and she ceased to struggle and allowed me to grasp her about the waist.

I swam to the riverbank, dragged her up to the top of the rise, then held her while she coughed and gagged up the water she had swallowed.

My muscles shook as I held her, retching and choking, but I thought I’d never seen a more lovely sight than the bedraggled, soaked, but live woman in my arms. We both sank to the grass and lay in an exhausted heap until one of the brothers brought up my horse and another. The man was followed by men running along the bank to see if all was well with us.

I got slowly to my feet, aided by the first man to reach us. Then I pulled Etta to her feet amid cheers from up and down the river.

Seeing that we were alive, all but the man holding our horses drifted back to the ford and their work. Etta raised her head, and her first weak words were to thank me.

I stood quivering to hear her praise, wondering where I’d gotten the strength to fight the river, remembering what a poor swimmer I’d always been. Then I knew some power not my own had aided my rescue.

Etta turned to the brother with the horses. “My baby. Is he safe?”

“Quite safe, Sister. The captain rescued your wagon, and the boy slept all the way across. He’s fussing a bit now, though. He was looking around for you.”

“Thank the Lord!”

Thank the Lord, echoed in my soul.

Etta turned to me. “I could not have wished for such a crossing, but you kept your word to get us safely to the other side.”

I helped her mount the spare horse as the other man rode off to continue his work. I took a deep breath.

“If I had my wish, I would ask that you never leave my side.” I stammered a little as I realized the enormity of my statement, but I went on, compelled to share my feelings. “When you were out of my reach in the water, I knew that if you were to die, my life would be empty.” I paused for another breath. “Etta, once you said you were fit only to be a farmer’s wife. I’m a farmer, though I’ve no land yet. When your sorrow has eased, will you be my wife?”

I looked up at her, holding fear in my hands along with my reins, knowing that her answer was the key to my future. Somewhere deep in my belly a feeling stood poised on the edge of a pinnacle, waiting for her reply. Her blue eyes gazed into my dark ones as she kept silence for a time. Then she spoke.

“You, of all the members of the company, have eased my grief. Now you have saved my life. You, who were a stranger to me, I now count my dearest friend.” She stopped, suddenly self-conscious, and fussed the hair away from her face. Then she smoothed the sodden dress across the horse’s back. Last, she looked again at me, and I held my breath.

“I will wed you whenever you say, my Lije.” She smiled, and the mud on her face only made her seem a rare flower of great beauty.

I stepped into my saddle, heart pulsing hard in my throat, feeling the spread of joy I knew as belonging. We are no more strangers, I thought. I turned my horse and grinned at Etta.

“Let’s go see Joseph. Tell him he can soon call me ‘papa’.”

© 1986, 2001 Marsha Ward