A Hero to Follow: Long Walk in the Wilderness


At first ten-year-old Joseph didn’t seem to notice the walking. The journey to Palmyra, New York, to join his father, that autumn of 1816, was filled with work to do and wonders to see.

There was wood to gather and chop for fires. There were oxen to hitch and unhitch. Sometimes the wagon wheel would sink in a boghole and Lucy Smith and her children would have to push. In the bottom of the wagon their goods would slip and rattle and bounce about.

As they moved through the woods there were animals to watch for—muskrats and raccoons and deer. Once Joseph saw the backside of a bear disappearing into a thicket. When he and Hyrum crept cautiously over to the spot, they discovered that the bear had been feasting on wild strawberries, so they filled their hats with the treat.

As the journey wore on, Lucy noticed that Joseph’s limp became more noticeable and that his head and shoulders drooped a little. Like a sturdy daisy in my hand would wilt against its will, she thought.

“Are you tired, Joseph?” she asked.

From the wagon seat, Mr. Howard looked down at them with bunched lips and an angry brow. “We’ve a right sizable load to pull. I reckon young Joe will have to keep a-walkin’ with the rest of the young’uns.”

You’re an unfeeling wretch, Lucy thought, but she didn’t speak it. Instead she said patiently, “Joseph is still lame from an operation he had a few years ago.”

The teamster scowled. “No matter. He’ll get no special treatment on this trip.” Then he hunched over the cowhide reins in his hands and his glance was like an ill wish on their journey.

Joseph knew it wasn’t easy to transport a woman with eight children through the wilds. Mean though Mr. Howard is, there’s comfort in his presence. If only Father could have taken us, Joseph thought. But he’s doing all he can to find a home for us in the new settlement. I guess we can endure Mr. Howard’s meanness a little longer.

His mother seemed to know his thoughts. “Things will work out, Joseph. The Lord has brought us through troubles before. It’s like your grandfather Asael always says, ‘Put your whole trust in the Lord; He never did, nor never will, forsake any that trust in Him.’”

Lucy laid her hand on his shoulder. “Your grandfather has his troubles too,” she continued. “You’ve noticed how he holds his head to one side?”

Joseph nodded.

“That’s because he was terribly burned as a boy and the cords in his neck were left a little stiff. He has been teased about it all his life.”

Their conversation was interrupted as the oxen halted and lowered their noses into a stream to drink. Joseph limped over and roughed the coarse hair of an ox with his hand. He felt sorry for it.

“If you could talk, would you be of a mind to complain over the heavy load you have to pull or the yoke pressed against your shoulders?” he asked softly.

But the ox stood stolidly under its burden. Its bleary eyes were closed; its head swayed a little in contented weariness; its legs were planted stiffly in the wet earth. Then Mr. Howard whistled and cracked the whip. The wagon sighed and lurched forward and the steady plodding of the hooves began again.

Joseph pushed his hand into his trouser pocket and took out a ball his father had fashioned for him before leaving. It was only a small round stone wrapped with yarn and covered over with buckskin, but it was a treasure to Joseph. It reminded him that he and his father would soon be together again. He tossed it into the air, then called to his brother. “Hey, Hyrum … catch!”

One morning during the course of their journey, Joseph and his oldest brother Alvin walked down the stairs of the inn where they had stayed the night. They knew something was wrong. Other guests, travelers like themselves, were clustered about the windows and front entrance.

Curiosity sent Joseph to a side window to see what was happening. A little way from the inn Joseph saw a man throwing some household goods out of a wagon into the snow. Immediately Joseph’s eyes rounded like a hoot owl’s. “Hey, Alvin … that’s our wagon!”

Alvin pushed in beside Joseph. “What about it?”

“Mr. Howard’s throwing all our goods out on the ground!”

Alvin bent over and looked out the window just in time to see a rocking chair dumped overboard. His face tightened. He ran out the door toward the wagon.

“Mr. Howard … what are you doing?”

The husky teamster dropped an iron skillet. It clattered to the road.

“Never you mind.”

Alvin stood bewildered, but only for a moment. With quick, long strides he ran back to the entrance of the inn.

“Joseph, you stay here and watch. I’m going to fetch Mother.”

Just as a featherbed hit the ground, Alvin returned, clamoring down the stairs, two at a time. He didn’t break his stride until he was almost to the wagon.

“Mr. Howard, my mother wants to talk with you in the inn.”

The teamster’s glance was crafty. He pulled his hat down on his head until it nearly covered his black eyes. He didn’t seem in any hurry as he sauntered toward the inn. He pushed open the front door. It slammed against the wall. Several travelers turned to watch. One questioned Joseph.

“What’s the trouble, son?”

“We’re supposed to meet my father in Palmyra. He hired Mr. Howard to take us there in our wagon.”

“It appears Mr. Howard is planning to take off without you.”

Joseph flushed with anger. If Mr. Howard took off with their team and wagon, Joseph didn’t know how his family would ever get to their new home.

With a calm dignity, Lucy Smith descended the stairs to meet Mr. Howard. Hyrum, Samuel, William, Catherine, and Sophronia, who was holding baby Don Carlos, followed at her heels. The teamster sidled up, his thumbs hooked over his belt. Four-year-old Catherine began to cry. Hyrum knelt beside her and she buried her head in his arm. Alvin and Joseph walked across the room to stand beside their mother. Their eyes were steady; their feet planted firmly on the bare wood floor.

Lucy looked into the man’s eyes. “Mr. Howard, what are your intentions?”

Some of the travelers stepped a little closer, sensing an air of hostility. Joseph watched as the teamster’s eyes darted about the room like a painter (cougar) looking for a tree in which to hide when dogs are on his trail.

“Mr. Howard, my son tells me you were about to start off with our team.”

“Well, the money you gave me is gone.”

Lucy was incredulous. “Gone? We gave you more than enough.”

The teamster turned toward the door. “It’s gone,” he persisted. “I can’t take you any farther.”

Lucy’s mind was whirling with questions as she watched him walk out into the snowy street. He paused, then ran for their wagon again. Lucy followed him. Her words hung on the frosty air as she grabbed at the reins to hold the team.

“These people will be my witnesses,” she said, turning toward the crowd of onlookers and speaking directly to them. “This team, as well as the goods, belong to my husband. This man intends to take them from me, or at least the team, leaving me and my eight children without the means of proceeding on our journey.”

One of the travelers hurried toward Lucy and remarked. “It appears there’s no decency in this man.”

“You’d better leave their wagon be!” another challenged.

The teamster shifted uneasily. Lucy gained courage.

“Sir, I forbid you to touch the team or drive it one step farther. You go about your business. I shall take charge of the team myself, and, hereafter, attend to my own affairs.”

The teamster’s thin, hard mouth twitched with unsaid words. Turning, he clumped down the street.

“We’ll help you, Mother,” comforted Alvin, as they watched the man go.

“And we’ll get to Palmyra—somehow,” added Joseph, as he began piling their belongings back into the wagon.

But getting to Palmyra took more money and effort than Lucy had planned. When there were only two cents left she began trading material and household goods and clothing to pay for food and lodging along the way.

“I wish we’d never decided to move to Palmyra!” Sophronia cried. “We’ve had nothing but trouble all the way.”

Young Joseph thought about what his big sister had said. It was true about the trouble. It had been dogging their heels ever since they left Sharon, Vermont. But this was the last day of their journey. Palmyra was almost at hand.

Outside, the sky was overcast. The woods were breathing deeply in the wintry wind. Joseph shivered as a blast whipped his coat and trousers against his body.

When the wagon was reloaded, Joseph noticed his brothers, Alvin and Hyrum, talking to Mr. Gates whose family had been traveling in sleighs along with the Smiths.

Alvin called to Joseph, “I’ll lead out with our wagon. Mother and Sophronia and the littlest children will ride with me. Mr. Gates and his boys will follow with their sleighs. He says you can ride in the last sleigh, Joseph.”

After Joseph climbed into the sleigh, the Gates boy clucked to the team and they pulled off down the road. Joseph was too excited about seeing his father in Palmyra that night to notice the frown on the boy’s face.

Joseph was aware of how much this boy and Mr. Howard had enjoyed tormenting him throughout the trip. However, with Mr. Howard gone, Joseph had hoped the meanness would stop.

“I’m glad to be able to ride. I had an operation on my leg and it’s still a little weak,” Joseph explained.

“I heard about that,” the boy answered, scornfully. “I think you use it for an excuse.”

Joseph gazed steadily at the boy. “It’s the truth.”

The boy threw a long, hard look at his companion, then with a quick glance ahead to make sure no one could see, he knocked Joseph off the moving sleigh into the road.

When Joseph regained consciousness, he raised up on one elbow, and tried to get up, but a sharp pain knifed through his side. He eased back into the snow, red-stained with his blood. What will I do? Joseph wondered, looking up into the branches of a tall maple tree, dried and frayed as a brush broom. It swept the sky and sent a dusting of snowflakes down upon his face. He gulped back the fullness that pained his throat. No tears would drown his hopes of their promised land.

Joseph wasn’t sure how long he lay in the rutted road before help came. But when he opened his eyes again he was looking into a bearded face.

“What happened to you, boy?”

“I fell off a sleigh. Can you take me to Palmyra?”

“That’s just where I’m heading.”

“My father is there … Joseph Smith … and my family.”

“Say, I know him. I can take you right there!”

After checking Joseph over, the man carefully lifted the boy into his wagon and covered him with a quilt.

“After your ma fixes that cut and you have a chance to warm up a bit, you’ll feel good as new.”

He was right. They met Joseph’s mother and father on the road, anxiously looking for him. Then it didn’t matter that the journey had been long and painful or that they had arrived with only two cents in cash. All was forgotten in the joy of reunion with his father. (To be continued)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ron Crosby