Travis Arrington awoke to the screams of his mother and three younger sisters in one of the adjoining rooms of their small cabin. It was still dark when he piled out of bed in his rumpled nightshirt and stumbled toward the bedroom door. But before he had taken two steps, the room was lit by a torch that burst through his window, shattering the glass and setting his bed afire.
The frightened lad backed against the wall, numb with dread as a face with a crooked nose, contorted by drink and blind hate, filled the broken window. Travis recognized the face as that of a farmer from a neighboring valley. He had seen him two days before, waving his fist at Pa and telling him that Mormons weren’t welcome in Missouri. As a final warning he told his father that he had better pack up and get out if he knew what was good for him.
Pa had just smiled kindly with a stalwart, quiet courage and told the man that he was homesteading on God’s land and that He didn’t seem to mind. He added that the Almighty was the only one he answered to.
Then the farmer with the crooked nose gave Travis’s father the same kind of nightmare look that he was giving Travis right now!
The boy fumbled for the doorknob, bolted into the next room, then stopped dead on the other side of the door. Fire was lapping up the walls of the main room like a deadly tapestry. His sisters were huddled together under a table, screaming and sobbing. And he could see his mother through the rising smoke, struggling with a man who was holding a half-empty bottle in one hand and a club in the other. Where, Travis wondered frantically, is Pa? At the same time he instinctively threw his twelve-year-old frame at the drunken man who was lifting his club to strike his mother.
The force of the boy’s lunge unbalanced the man and knocked him against the wall. Striking his head on the rough fireplace stones, he fell to the floor. Quickly Mama gathered up two of the little girls in her arms, while the third clutched her leg. She shouted for Travis to follow her down into the root cellar before the man on the floor regained his senses.
“But where’s Pa?” Travis wildly petitioned.
Mama, already halfway through the hole in the floor, glanced at Travis with tears streaming down her cheeks. “With God,” she choked, her voice breaking. Then, forcing herself to switch her attention from her agony to the terrible urgency of the moment, she tearfully commanded Travis to hurry, and then disappeared beneath the floor.
But Travis couldn’t move. He saw something through the smoke and the open front door that held him fast. In the yard outside he spied his father, facedown in the light of a dropped torch with a little pool of blood under his head and a third man standing near him waving a gun in shameful triumph. A ravaging anguish, hate, and fear riveted through the devastated boy like a molten iron rod and buried itself deep into his heart.
Suddenly something else was holding him fast. A hand locked about his leg with a viselike grip. The man on the floor shook the dizziness from his head and glowered up at Travis with a spiteful grin, then he pulled a knife from his coat pocket.
Travis blanched. Suddenly a roof timber wrapped with fire crashed to the floor. The man glanced about the small room, now an inferno, then looked back at Travis and widened his grin. The next moment he was up and gone. The sound of a closing door told Travis that the man had decided to let the fire seal the boy’s fate.
Sooty, strangling clouds of smoke were now so thick that Travis couldn’t see the door to the root cellar, and the fire was so intense it stung his eyes. He stumbled over a chair and fell to the floor. Unbidden tears ran down his face as he extended his hand and blindly felt his way through the ashen mist. His fingers were instantly blistered on the fiery wood as they desperately searched for the opening to the root cellar.
Suddenly, someone was grabbing at him! He cried out and pulled back his hand.
“Travis! It’s me!” came Mama’s anxious voice from out of the fiery tempest. He gave himself over to her saving tugs and let himself be dragged beneath the floor.
A little wind trembled the aspens surrounding the clearing and fanned the embers of still-hot coals where Travis’s family cabin had stood a few hours before. Travis peered out of the root cellar, scanning the black rubble. His reddened eyes stopped on the sight of his lifeless father in the smoke-hazed yard. Morning’s first frosted rays of light were splintering down through the dark trees and resting on Pa’s body. But the advancing light only resurrected the terrible memory the boy had tried to pretend was no more than a bad dream.
Travis wanted to stay in the hole—forever. But Mama told him, “Get a shovel and dig a place for your pa.” Then more gently she said, “Do it where the sun shows prettily by the willows.”
The boy wondered how the sun could feel so warm, as though nothing tragic had happened. And why does that bright red bird in the aspen tree a little way off sing so joyously, just like it did when Pa was alive?
Travis’s mother had concluded that these things “were for the best,” to help them to keep on going. It was as though his father were saying “All is well,” and telling them to look forward to the good in life that could still be theirs. That eased a portion of the agony some, but it didn’t change the hate that festered inside him for the three men who had taken away his greatest joy—his father.
Travis and his father had been very close, closer than a prayer to an amen. He tried to be strong like Mama wanted him to, but once again tears blurred and burned his eyes and fed the roots of his growing bitterness.
Travis watched his sisters pick little yellow wild flowers and place them atop the grave. Then he listened as his mother read a scripture from the Book of Mormon … something about the blessings due the righteous dead. She stopped once and shook with grief, then quickly lifted her head and turned her face toward the sun.
A twig snapped somewhere in the windy shadows of the nearby thickets and Mama said it was time they hurried on. There was nothing much to pack. Most everything had been lost in the fire, except a parcel of dried food in the root cellar that Travis lugged to the wagon along with his secret hate.
An hour later the hot blackened wood hissed as rain drifted down from a leaden sky, and wagon wheels slushed along a remote, rarely traveled road. Travis sat in the back of the wagon with his sisters, his eye set on the rainy landscape where a happier memory unfolded when he and Pa were in these lovely woods only a week ago. “Your ma loves blackberries, doesn’t she, boy!” Pa had said. “Well, we’ll just fill our hats with enough to make the biggest berry cobbler this side of anywhere a body can rightly think of!” And they did.
Suddenly the wagon stopped. Travis turned to see his mother climbing down and hurrying to the side of the trail, where a man lay facedown in a little gulley filled with rainwater. There was blood on the side of his head, and he looked to be unconscious.
Mama bent beside him and turned him over. Travis paled. It was the farmer with the crooked nose! “He’s one of the men who burned down our place!” Travis shouted.
His mother studied the man, who groaned with pain and fever. “Yes,” she quietly said, “but he needs help badly. He may die without it.”
Travis interrupted with fiery disbelief. “Then let him die! If it wasn’t for him and those other men, Pa would still be alive!”
“Fetch me a hand,” Mama firmly commanded. “We’ve got to get him out of the rain and into the wagon. He’s toting a killing fever.” She glanced about quickly, squinting through the falling rain. “He must’ve ridden past here last night and hit his head on one of these low-hanging limbs.” Her stare returned to Travis who stood back protestingly. This time Mama’s voice was stern. “Don’t just stand there, Travis Arrington, I said—!”
“But, Mama.” Travis countered. Then he paused, the man’s eyes were starting to open slowly. After a moment he stared wide-eyed at Travis, then at his mother. His lips tried to speak, but couldn’t. However, the expression on his blood-spattered face was one of stunned disbelief. Why are these people helping me? it seemed to ask.
Mama tried to lift the man by herself, and as she struggled in the dripping rain, Travis felt moved to help her.
A few minutes later the farmer was laid out in the back of the wagon. Mama removed her shawl and placed it over him. When she looked up she found Travis looking at her in a way he had never done before. Touched by his expression, her eyes filled with tears. Then she looked back at the man. “Can you point?” she asked.
The man looked puzzled, but nodded. Mama continued, “We’re going to take you home. There’s not much I can do for you here. We’ll sit you up so that when we get close to wherever it is you live, you can point in the direction we must go. Do you understand?”
The man nodded again. Is it just rain in the man’s eyes, Travis wondered, or is it tears? Surely not tears! he determined. But that look on his face … Must be out of his head with fever, he concluded.
The man slowly raised his hand. Travis stiffened, then picked up a shovel from the wagon bed. But the man’s hand only tapped Mama’s arm and motioned for her to draw near. The man mustered enough strength to whisper, “Why?”
“It is our way,” she replied simply.
Travis lowered the shovel slowly as he watched the man close his eyes and begin to sob. Then he looked at Mama. She took his hand in hers. Nothing was said, but suddenly Travis could almost hear the words that Pa had used one day … last Easter it was. Something he said Jesus had said of those who had mocked and scorned and whipped Him, and hung Him on the cross to die: “Father, forgive them. …”
Travis’s bitterness would not pass from him as easily as tired leaves dropped from autumn’s windy branches. But from that time on he would hear more and more each day the joyous singing of the birds in the aspens—all the way to Nauvoo and beyond.