Sugar Creek was the first camp the pioneers made after they left their warm, comfortable homes in Nauvoo. Within two weeks it was filled with five thousand people, who were waiting for the signal from Brigham Young before going forward on their journey “out west.”
To Tommy and Betsy it was like living in a city, for the tents and wagons were placed along streets as their houses had been in Nauvoo. Between each was a space roofed over with brush to protect it from the weather. There the meals were prepared, and there the children played.
In the center of the camp was a big square, something like a park. On one side of it Tommy and Betsy lived in their covered wagon. Anytime during the day or night they could look out onto the square and see campfires burning and people standing nearby trying to get warm.
One morning, very early, Tommy saw Brigham Young on a wagon box in the center of the square. A moment later his voice boomed out over the camp like a giant cannon: “Attention, Camp of Israel!” And Tommy knew that within minutes everyone in camp would come to the square to hear what Brigham Young would say.
“I hope he tells us that it is time to move on out west,” said Tommy.
“I hope so, too,” said Mother.
But Brigham Young said nothing about going out west. Instead, he said that during the past few days eight hundred men had arrived at Sugar Creek without enough food to last a week, and he asked those who had food to divide with those in need. He promised that if the Saints would do this, the Lord would bless them with all the food they needed.
President Young urged the men to go to the towns on the north and on the south to ask for work building roads, building bridges, or putting up fences; he also suggested that pay be made in food. He reported that featherbeds, watches, dishes, shawls, silverware, and furniture could be traded for corn and wheat.
Tommy and Betsy were especially interested when he told the children they could help by gathering willows from the creek bed to weave into bushel and half-bushel baskets that could be traded for food.
Immediately following Brigham Young’s “Amen,” and even before there was talking or moving around, the people heard the faraway sound of a bell ringing.
“It’s the bell in the temple tower at Nauvoo,” Tommy whispered to Betsy, and to him it was as if the Lord were giving his own “Amen” to the words his prophet had spoken. In the quiet of his own heart, Tommy promised that he would try to do all Brigham Young wanted him to do.
When the meeting was over, Tommy’s father gathered his family around him and said, “We’re beginning a long journey. We’re not even sure where it will end. We only know that the Lord will lead us there. We know also that all we’ll have is what we take with us. Now the problem is, shall we give the food we brought with us to those in need, or shall we save it for ourselves so we can be sure of having enough?”
Tommy remembered the quiet promise he had made. “President Young has asked us to share,” he said, “and I think that is what the Lord wants us to do.”
“I know the Lord will help us get more when we need it,” added Betsy.
Tommy’s father smiled. “I’m glad you feel that way,” he said. “We can’t blame the Saints for coming here without enough food. No one was really ready to leave Nauvoo now, for everyone expected not to leave until spring. Some had money to buy food and equipment, but most of them didn’t, so they had to trade their farms and houses for whatever they could get for them. Brother Johnson, for example, traded his house for only a covered wagon and a yoke of oxen. There was no money to buy food, so they just brought what they had, and I’m sure it will be gone in a few days.”
“He’ll go to a nearby town to find work to buy food,” added mother.
“Are you going, Father?” asked Tommy.
“Yes, Brother Johnson and I are going together,” Father answered. “We’ll leave in the morning.”
“You can take my silver spoons with you,” Mother offered. “I think you can trade them for a wagonload of corn to keep our animals alive and strong until the grass starts to grow.”
“You can take our featherbed,” said Betsy. “I know someone will want that.”
“I’ll gather willows in the creek bed and weave them into baskets, like President Young asked us to do,” said Tommy.
All were so interested in listening to each other that no one noticed Sister Johnson, who had been standing just outside of the covered wagon. They were surprised when she spoke. “You can take my shawl,” she said quietly, “and the little sugar bowl my grandmother gave me.”
As she brought the items inside the wagon, she teetered as if she were going to fall. Tommy’s father jumped off the wagon to help her. “Are you ill?” he asked.
“No,” she answered, “but I am hungry. We haven’t had much to eat the last two days.”
Tommy’s mother hurried to help Sister Johnson lie down. “Munch on this sea biscuit,” she insisted, “while I fix you some hot mush.”
Later Tommy and Betsy and their father went back with Sister Johnson to her wagon. Tommy carried some potatoes, his father some flour, and Betsy a pail of milk.
As she carried the milk, Betsy thought of her kitten she had left in Nauvoo. In her mind she again heard her mother ask, “You wouldn’t want anyone to go hungry just so you could have you kitten along, would you?”
Betsy smiled and said, “No,” very quietly to herself. And this time she meant it for sure!