The Cloud

Johanna trudged beside the wagon train lumbering westward along the dusty trail. “Why do I have to walk all the way?” she grumbled to herself. But she already knew the answer: The wagons were loaded with precious supplies to help the Saints begin a new life in the West. There was no room for riders.

The burlap sack tied to Johanna’s waist dragged on the ground, so she hitched it up. By nightfall she would have loaded the bag with buffalo chips and small sticks to make a warm fire on the cold prairie. The late summer sun shone warm on her back. It soothed her grumbles.

Johanna began to hum a little tune. The same tune echoed from behind her. It’s that Barney Biegland! Why does he always have to copy me! Johanna turned and stuck her tongue out at him. Crosser than ever, she stopped watching where she was stepping and tripped. Her knees and elbows smacked the ground hard, and she began to cry.

Barney bent to help her up.

“Leave me alone!” Johanna yelled, wrenching away.

“I was just trying to help.”

As Johanna picked herself up, she spotted an Indian sandal! Her eyes scanned the area, and she found its mate. She picked them up and fit them over her thin-soled shoes. They probably belonged to a member of a roving band of Indians, she decided. How soft they felt—like walking on air. She turned and looked at the dusty line of oxen and covered wagons as they plodded across the parched prairie. As she watched, the words Captain Rice had spoken ten days before in Council Bluffs, Iowa, came back to her:

“Twenty miles a day to reach Salt Lake by October conference, and that’s none too soon.” Johanna started walking again with her new-found sandals on.

As the sun sank below the horizon, the wagons formed a circle for the night. The younger men were assigned to herd the oxen, and Barney was one of them. The three cows in the company were milked, and the precious milk was distributed to the sick and to the young children. One cow belonged to Johanna’s family.

Johanna dumped her day’s fuel near the fire, where her mother already had the salt pork out. Johanna helped mix flour and water into dough for ashcakes. She patted the dough into thin cakes and laid them on the hot rocks around the fire. When they were baked, she picked the cakes off the rocks and brushed the ashes off. They tasted flat but were warm.

Johanna thought of the comfortable farmhouse her family had left in Denmark. Meals of roast duck, turkey, cheeses, pancakes, and potatoes had filled the family’s big table. Loaves of hot bread had decorated its center, and she could almost taste the warm butter and honey dripping off a big slice of bread—almost, but not quite. She felt sorry for herself as she munched the flavorless ashcake.

Still, Johanna was not sorry that the Latter-day Saint missionaries had taught her family the gospel. And she was not sorry that her parents had decided to join other Latter-day Saints in the valleys of the western mountains. It was an adventure to travel to a new home. But she did hate the dusty trail and the dull food. The thing she hated most, though, was the walking—over a thousand miles, one step at a time, day after day.

Soon it was time for the nightly song and prayer. Captain Rice gave the scripture: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way” [Ex. 13:21]. The Israelites at least had a cloud to lead them, Johanna thought. Exhausted, she sank into her bed in the back of the wagon.

Johanna was startled from a deep sleep by the piercing shouts of “Fire! Fire!” She quickly dressed and peeked out the back of the wagon. Smoke blackened the western horizon. “Leave the bedclothes. I’ll take care of them,” her mother said. “Help your father find the oxen and cow.”

The animals had grazed farther out on the plain than usual, and the men were having a hard time getting the fire-frightened animals back to the wagons.

Running to find her father, Johanna saw him in the distance, driving the oxen. As she ran toward him, he called, “Johanna, lead the oxen back to camp. I must look for the cow. She’s too valuable to lose.”

Johanna found a switch and touched it to the flanks of the oxen as she had done many times before. The smoke was becoming more pungent. When a waft of smoky wind passed over them, the frightened oxen stopped, and even though Johanna switched them harder, they wouldn’t move. Johanna looked around desperately for help. She could hear the crackling of fire now.

Barney came up behind Johanna, leading another team. “Pull the rope of the lead ox!” he called.

As she bent to pick up the rope, Johanna was pulled to the dusty earth. The lead ox had stepped on her skirt!

“Don’t move,” Barney commanded as he hurried over to her. “Watch the ox. When I get him to move, pull away.” Johanna waited anxiously while Barney calmed the ox and got it to step forward, off her skirt.

“Hurry,” Barney told her as he got the oxen to move toward camp and went back to his own team.

Soon Father was at Johanna’s side with the cow. His smile comforted her. As they reached the camp, they heard the call to prayer. In the prayer circle, Johanna slipped her hand into her mother’s.

The captain spoke. “There is no chance for the oxen to escape the fast-moving prairie fire. We must ask the Lord for guidance.”

As a fervent amen was said by all, the captain stood on a wagon tongue and pointed at the sky. “Brothers and Sisters, we have not come this far to be destroyed. That tiny cloud will be our deliverance.”

Johanna looked up into the smoke-blackened sky, and the small cloud began to grow in size. Even as the fire roared across the plain and its heat waves reached up to the clouds and distorted the horizon, the cloud became bigger and heavy with rain. Lightning, brighter than the flames of the fire, lit up the sky. The roar of the fire drummed in Johanna’s ears; the thunder answered back.

The single cloud suddenly became many clouds, all spilling rain onto the fire below. The earth hissed, and steam billowed upward. Johanna looked heavenward. The rain washed the tears and dust from her face.

Then, as quickly as the clouds had appeared, they disappeared. But the fire was out! Blue prairie sky surrounded the wagon train. A thankful group of pioneers knelt again in the circle of their wagons to thank their Father in Heaven.

Later that morning Johanna skipped ahead of the wagon train with the other children. She looked down at her muddy feet squishing in the wet prairie soil. I would ordinarily be grumbling about this, she thought. She smiled and started humming a tune.

Barney appeared at her side. “You sound cheerful,” he said.

“Thanks for helping me with the oxen,” Johanna said shyly.

She put the Indian sandals on again, and they felt even lighter than ever on her feet. Johanna, wondering if the Israelite children had had dirty feet like hers, was sure that they were as grateful for their cloud as she was for the one that Father in Heaven had sent today.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer