Elizabeth was always first. She was the first of four children to be born. She was the first one up in the morning, picking the warmest spot by the big stove to get dressed in and warm her cold toes. She was the first one to dinner, the first one to church. She was even the first one to bed—so she could choose the best spot in the middle of the big feather mattress. And when the old cat at the farm had kittens, Elizabeth got first pick.
Anna was only a year younger than Elizabeth, but she wasn’t nearly so quick. When Elizabeth was first to the swing or the river, Anna sometimes stayed behind and rocked little Thomas, or peeled potatoes for Mother, or darned Father’s socks. Anna liked to do quiet things. She even liked to wait for the youngest sister, Sarah, when she tagged along.
When Father gathered the family together and told them that they were going to Zion, Elizabeth was the first to cry and to refuse to leave her friends. But when the time came to board the big ship, Elizabeth was the first one up the wide gangplank. She was the first person to get sick on the ship, and the first to get well. She was the first to walk the slippery, lopsided decks and the first to make friends with the grinning sailors. They gave her treats and sang songs for her.
After the ship docked, Elizabeth was the first one to run down the long plank and step onto land, the first one to dance on American soil. Mother and Anna were last. In fact, Anna went back to the ship three times to help Father carry all the family’s belongings off.
When it was time to load the wagon for the journey west, Elizabeth was the first to find a place for her own things: the sweater that her grandmother had knitted, her best blue bonnet, and her wooden doll, Belinda. There wasn’t room for everything the family wanted to take; but Elizabeth had settled her things in the wagon first, so she wasn’t worried.
Elizabeth was the first to give names to the oxen. They were tall, long-boned beasts with beautiful horns. Elizabeth named them Peter and Paul. Anna thought Buttercup might be a good name for the honey-colored one who was so gentle. But Elizabeth had already named them.
The trip was a long one. They crossed rivers and climbed mountains. Elizabeth was always first. She walked ahead of the wagon, never behind in the dust. She found good-natured men on horseback who didn’t mind letting a little girl ride across the swollen streams with them. She found the best spot beside the campfires. She found the best buffalo chips because she was first and picked the old, dry ones, which were easier to gather.
Elizabeth loved the journey. She loved the new things to see each day. She loved the nights when the children played games and the grown-ups danced and sang songs. She loved being first.
As they drew near to the valley, Elizabeth became so excited that she couldn’t hold still. Everyone knew how she felt. And everyone knew who would be the very first to set foot in the valley. Elizabeth was always first.
Early one morning on the last week of the journey, Anna slipped on the wagon tongue. She hit her head and cut her arm and twisted her ankle. She behaved very bravely for a girl of seven. Mother made up a bed in the crowded back of the wagon and laid her there. It was hot and bumpy, but Anna didn’t complain. Elizabeth did though. She didn’t like doing Anna’s work. She didn’t like hauling water or scouring the pans. She wasn’t very good at stirring the soup or feeding the baby. And she wasn’t nearly so patient with little Sarah, who constantly wanted something. Elizabeth was cross and tired. For the first time in her life she didn’t have enough energy to worry about being first. All she could think about was curling up under her mother’s soft quilt and falling asleep.
When they reached Pratt’s Pass, Elizabeth wanted to scamper ahead to be the first to stand on the ledge and look down over layer after layer of purple-blue mountains to the wide valley below. But little Thomas woke up and needed to be fed, and Sarah tugged at her skirts and whined to be taken. By the time Elizabeth reached the ledge, half the company had already seen the valley. Elizabeth hadn’t been first.
Elizabeth felt sorry for herself. Now there were only two days left of the journey. Father had bound Anna’s foot, but she couldn’t walk without help. Anna sat and peeked out from the wagon. Elizabeth scowled and worked and watched while someone else was always first!
The morning of the last day was beautiful. Elizabeth was the first one up, the first one to get water, the first one to bathe and get dressed. She fed the baby as fast as she could and helped with breakfast. She tied Sarah’s laces and told her that if they came undone, it was just too bad. Elizabeth had to be quick. Today was the day. Today they would reach the Salt Lake Valley. Today Elizabeth had to be first!
When the wagons began to creak down the last long descent, Elizabeth climbed into the wagon and crawled back to where her favorite things were. She wanted to wear her pretty blue bonnet when she entered the valley. As she crawled, she heard a strange sound. She stopped. The sound was Anna crying!
Elizabeth froze. She had seldom heard Anna cry. Anna was always calm, always content. Now she was crying as if her heart would break. Elizabeth’s stomach felt sick. She could feel the fast thump of her heartbeat. She crawled over to the bed. “Anna, what is it?”
Anna looked up and blinked wide, wet eyes at Elizabeth. A tear ran down her nose and dropped from the very tip.
“I can’t see anything from in here,” Anna sobbed. “I want to see the valley.” New tears welled up in Anna’s blue eyes. “I want to wear the dress I’ve been saving and walk into the valley, Elizabeth, just like everyone else.”
Something inside Elizabeth started to ache. “You shall, Anna. You shall!”
Anna stared at her. “How, Elizabeth?”
“You’ll see.” Elizabeth had already turned and was searching through the neat piles of store goods.
The sun was high in the sky when the wagons pulled to a stop on the valley floor. A crowd had gathered to meet the newcomers. Some of the young people ran ahead and were waiting, dancing and clapping their hands with glee while the wagons pulled up to them. The men from the wagon train took off their hats and wiped their foreheads. The women shaded their eyes and gazed over the lovely valley—their new home at last.
“Where is Elizabeth?” someone shouted. “Wasn’t Elizabeth first?”
“Of course she was first!” another replied with a laugh.
“Then where is she?” cried one of the children.
People began to look. People began to call for Elizabeth.
“Here we are!”
Everyone turned to see.
Down the long line of wagons came the two sisters. Elizabeth wore the blue bonnet, Anna her red dress with lace at the collar. With one hand she held Grandfather’s cane. Her other hand rested on Elizabeth’s sturdy arm. Anna’s steps were slow and painful. But she was walking! With Elizabeth’s arm round her waist, she walked past the wagons and into the Salt Lake Valley. Just like all the others.
“Mother,” Elizabeth cried. “I was the last one into the valley, the very last one. But I’m so happy! I never felt this happy when I was first.”