Whether or not a boy can whistle hardly seems like a matter of life and death, but to Oliver it was. He wanted to whistle in the worst way, but he couldn’t! No matter how much he puckered and puffed, drew and blew, or wheezed and squeezed his breath through his lips, he couldn’t whistle. It seemed as though he’d sent enough air in and out of his mouth to turn a windmill, but he still couldn’t make one note of the simplest tune.
Even so, when he heard that the Church leaders in Nauvoo were recruiting young boys for a whistling and whittling brigade, he hurried downtown to join. If there was one thing he could do, it was use a pocketknife. Oliver knew how to carve almost anything he set his mind to. He only had to look at a piece of wood to see what shape was hidden inside. Then he would carefully cut the wood away until he’d freed the polar bear or squirrel or flying eagle trapped inside. It was exciting to watch it happen. No one else understood how he did it. He might be just the boy the brigade needed to do some carving for them.
The youngsters in Oliver’s neighborhood met behind the blacksmith’s shop to find out what this whistling and whittling group was all about.
“Boys,” Brother Johnson began, “we need your help. Ever since the mobbers in Carthage killed the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, they’ve been trying to force the Saints to move out of Nauvoo. Now they’ve repealed the city charter, and we don’t even have any police to protect us from these ruffians. We need a little more time to get ready before we can leave, and you boys can help give us that time.”
“We’ll be glad to help,” Oliver said. “What can we do?”
“Just walk around town whistling and whittling,” Brother Johnson answered.
“We already do that,” Will Baines said.
“Exactly!” Brother Johnson replied. “It doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Whistling is a happy sound, and whittling is a harmless pastime. Who could object to that?”
“But what good will it do?” Ezra wanted to know.
“Plenty,” Brother Johnson explained, “because while you are doing it, you will be watching and following any strangers who come into town. With so many eyes watching them, they probably won’t do too much damage.”
“What if they don’t like it?”
“What can they do? You’re too little to pick on and too many to lick.”
“So all we do is whittle and whistle and watch?”
“That’s all. Don’t answer any questions and don’t ask any. Just keep up the noise. It will warn everyone who hears it to be alert.”
It sounded like an easy job—even fun. The boys began buzzing with eager anticipation.
“Just one more thing,” Brother Johnson began, waiting until all the boys were quiet. “We need to decide on a signal to call you all together when someone spots a suspicious-looking character.”
One of the boys let out a long shrill whistle, followed by two short ones.
“Perfect!” Brother Johnson said. “Now let’s see if all of you can do that. The boys tried out the warning one at a time.
That’s when everyone found out that Oliver couldn’t whistle—and when Oliver found out that whistling was more important than whittling in this brigade. Anyone could hack away at a stick with a knife and pretend to be making something. For that matter, he could pucker up his lips and pretend to be whistling too. But if he got in a tight place with a stranger and couldn’t send a signal, it might very well be a matter of life and death!
Oliver hurried to his thinking place in the grove by the river and cut off a length of green willow to whittle on. Looking it over, he thought, Oh, good—the sap is running! A pleased smile crossed his face at the thought of what this stick would become. He sat down and began to carve.
Carefully choosing the right spot on the wood, he sliced the narrow end straight across. A little way down he notched out a crosswise hole that removed a leaf node. Three or four inches below this, he sunk his blade just the depth of the bark and made a ring around the branch as he turned it. Next he tapped the bark gently with the handle of his knife to loosen it so the bark would slip off easily.
Suddenly Oliver heard the slap of oars in the water below him and the muffled sound of rough voices. Quickly he looked for a place to hide, but there was none. He froze his movements and wished he could become invisible. Even more, he wished he could send the whistle signal to the other boys.
The rowboat pulled in to shore, and a coarse-looking man jumped out.
“You’ll have to hustle,” the man in the boat warned, “to get it done before anyone sees you. They won’t be expecting anybody to come from this direction. I’ll wait for you around the bend.”
The boat glided away, and Oliver held his breath as the man climbed the slope toward him. He came closer and closer.
A flicker of fright in the man’s eyes betrayed his surprise at seeing the lad. Then his face turned hard. “What are you doing, boy?” he demanded.
“Just carving this stick,” Oliver told him.
“Into what?” the man wanted to know.
“I’ll show you.”
“Haven’t got time to watch,” the man said gruffly, eyeing the knife.
“It’ll take less than a minute,” Oliver assured him, watching carefully to see if his delaying tactic was working. The boy gave the bark a gentle twist, and a tiny craaack told him it was loose from the inner wood. He slid the bark tube off quickly, then began to deepen and lengthen the notch in the wood, forming a plan of action in his mind as he did so. He must not make an error.
“I happen to need that jackknife you’re using,” the man said in a threatening tone. “It just might come in handy.”
Handy for what? Oliver asked himself. Hurting someone?
“I’m nearly through with it,” he said as calmly as he could, folding the blade back into the handle and sliding the knife into his pocket. He slipped the bark tube back onto the whistle he had whittled.
“All finished,” he said. “See?” He held it out to show the stranger.
“What is that thing anyway?” he asked. “Looks like a whistle.”
Oliver gulped at the lump in his throat. What he was going to do next might very well be his last act on earth. Whether it was or not, he had to do it!
“Let’s see if it works,” he said to the man. He took a deep, desperate breath and put the whistle to his lips. Then, with all his might, he blew a long, shrill blast followed by two short ones.
“Yep, it does,” he said in a pleased voice.
But the man was not pleased. He grabbed the whistle with one hand and the back of Oliver’s collar with the other. He shook the lad like a cat shakes a mouse.
“You be quiet, boy,” he growled. “And give me that knife!” Quicker than Oliver believed possible, the man had the knife open at his back and was shoving him up the slope. “You and I have some work to do in this town.” His crazy laugh terrified Oliver. “And when we get done,” the man continued, “I’ll make sure you get all the credit.”
As Oliver stumbled up the bank, he hoped with all his heart that the boys had heard his signal. His ears were keenly tuned for the sound of their answering whistles. Just as he reached the top of the hill, he heard them. He blinked away a tear of relief and said a silent prayer of thanks that the Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling Brigade was on duty to escort this stranger through the city. No one ever found out what mischief the stranger had in mind because he was soon surrounded by noisy, curious boys and quickly decided it was time to leave town.
He had been right about one thing, though. Oliver did get all the credit.