The flame in the kerosene lamp flickered and sputtered. Mrs. Sheridan looked anxiously to see if all the oil was gone. She knew that the jug in the cupboard contained only enough kerosene to fill the lamp one more time.
As the flame settled, Mrs. Sheridan went on with the inventory: the big sugar crock was empty, the cornmeal was gone, there was perhaps enough flour in the barrel for one more batch of bread. As Mrs. Sheridan replaced the lid on the flour barrel, a long, deep sigh escaped her lips.
Jed, who had just turned ten and who was supposed to be asleep, knew why his mother sighed. Just this afternoon he had brought the last of the carrots and potatoes up from the root cellar. He watched his mother as she turned the wick of the lamp lower and lower until the light was gone.
Jed waited for Mother to get into bed with Father. Instead, by the pale wisp of moonlight that slipped into the room under the lower edge of the window curtains, he could see Mother hunched over the table. He knew she was crying. It was not loud crying, because she wouldn’t want Father to know she was crying. She always smiled for Father and said funny things to make him laugh and think everything was going fine.
It hurt Jed to see his mother cry, although he knew she had many things to cry about. Father was too ill to get out of bed and he needed a doctor, and the winter food supply was gone. Father had told mother not to worry when they had given a large supply of flour, sugar, bacon, and potatoes to a hungry Indian family. He had said he’d hitch up the horses and wagon and take a day or two to go to the store at the crossroads for more supplies. But then Father had become ill, and though every day he said that in a day or two he’d be well enough to go for supplies, he seemed to be getting worse.
Carefully, so as not to disturb his two younger brothers, Jed slipped out of bed, crossed the room, and placed a hand gently on his mother’s shoulder. “Don’t cry, Mother,” he said encouragingly. “It’ll be all right. We’ll manage somehow.”
“Oh, Jed!” Mother whispered. “I didn’t know you were awake. Jed, maybe you and I could drive to the store for supplies. Do you think you could ride Bess at the head of the team and guide her across the river while I handle the reins?”
“Sure I could!” Jed replied bravely, though deep inside he was frightened. Even in the summer when the river was not so high—with Father riding Bess and Mother holding the reins for the team—it was scary. The river was wide and swift, and there were only a few places where it was safe to cross.
“Good,” said Mother. “I knew I could depend on you. We must make it there and back in a day. We’ll leave before sunup tomorrow. Come, now, we must get some sleep.”
Mother quietly tucked the covers more snugly around little Rachel as she slept in her cradle, then slipped into bed.
Just as quietly Jed crossed the room and climbed into bed beside his sleeping brothers.
Although Jed knew the day ahead would be a long, tiresome one, he could not sleep. He thought of the river with its splashing, whirling eddies and its swift undercurrents. He remembered how firm Father had to be with Bess as he directed her to lead the team to the opposite shore. Jed thought about how cold and icy the water would be when it splashed on his legs.
Then a different thought came into Jed’s mind: Why don’t I ask the Lord to help me? Why don’t I pray and ask for courage so that I won’t be afraid?
Once more Jed slid from the warmth of his bed and knelt on the cold floor to pray. He asked Heavenly Father to bless him that he would not be afraid of the river, that he could manage Bess as Father did, that he and Mother would have a safe trip to the crossroads and home again, and that Father and the little ones would be taken care of while he and Mother were gone. With a feeling of quiet peace, he crawled back into bed and slept.
It was still dark when Mother awakened Jed. He dressed quickly in the shivery cold, and he and Mother went outside together to hitch the horses. And together, with teeth chattering, they returned to the cabin. Mother kissed Father good-bye. Jed gathered up the bearskin robe for their feet, the quilts for their shoulders, and their meager lunch of bread and dried fruit.
It was midmorning when they drew up at the river crossing. Seeing the river again and listening to its angry rushing and splashing, Jed was afraid all over again.
Mother looked fondly at Jed. She knew the task ahead would be a hard one for him, but she knew of no other way to obtain the supplies. “Think we can make it?” she asked.
“Sure,” replied Jed, jumping from the wagon. “Sure we can.”
But as Jed stood on the sandy riverbank, the river noises suddenly became a mighty roar. His heart began to thud like a pounding hammer, and he had a difficult time climbing onto Bess’s back.
I can’t do it, he thought. I just can’t. But even as his courage seemed to fail, he remembered the sweet, peaceful feeling that had come to him in the night as he had prayed. And so, sitting on Bess at the edge of the river, he prayed again. “Please help me, Heavenly Father, not to be afraid. Please help us to cross the river safely.”
Again the fearful feeling left Jed, and his heart stopped pounding. The river no longer sounded like an angry beast. As the horses stepped into the river, it almost seemed that his father was with him—helping him, guiding him, telling him what to say and do. Though at times the water splashed against his feet and legs, Jed did not seem to feel the cold. Sooner than Jed expected, the wagon was being pulled onto the sand of the opposite shore.
“Good boy!” exclaimed Mother, as Jed climbed back onto the wagon seat. She tucked the bearskin robe around his feet and wrapped a quilt around him. “You did just as well as Father! Just as well!”
In a short time they pulled up in front of the store at the crossroads. Mr. Callihan, the storekeeper, came to the door. “If it isn’t the Sheridans!” he called. “How nice it is to see you. Haven’t seen any of you since last fall. With the river as rough as it is now, I didn’t expect to see any of you until later in the spring. By the way, where is Mr. Sheridan?”
When Mother explained, Mr. Callihan promised to get word to the doctor. Then he patted Jed on the back and said, “You’re a fine lad, Jed! I wouldn’t mind having a half dozen like you.”
“Nor would I,” replied Mother with shining eyes. “I don’t know what I would do without him.”
“Come in now,” continued the jovial Mr. Callihan. “Let’s tend to your needs. You’ll be wanting to hurry back to that sick husband of yours and the little ones.”
When at last the wagon was loaded with flour, sugar, beans, bacon, dried prunes, cornmeal, potatoes, carrots, apples, kerosene, medicine for Father, and a sackful of stick candy, the Sheridans headed home-ward. As they rode along, they talked about how good it was to have the wagon filled with good food and other necessities. How happy Father would be!
Soon Mother again stopped the wagon at the river crossing. For a moment she and Jed sat looking across the river, which seemed to be rushing along as though it were a racehorse urged on by an anxious rider.
Before Mother could say a word, Jed jumped from the wagon. As he climbed onto Bess, his body trembled and cold chills raced up and down his spine. But his fear lasted only a moment. With the help of Heavenly Father, he and his mother had crossed the river once, and they would do it again. Turning his head, he smiled at his mother. Then, after shouting “Giddap!” and giving Bess a smart spank, Jed headed the wagon for the opposite shore.