Upon seeing the canvas-topped wagons inching toward the wide curve of our fishing creek, Peter sucked in his breath. “Mormons!” He grabbed my arm and pulled me through a mud puddle, and into the tall grass.
“Look what you did!” I wailed, wiping at the mud on my new birthday shoes.
Peter only slapped the willow stick that was meant to become my birthday whistle against his leg. “If they camp, we’ll need to warn Pa. He’ll get men from town to help drive them on their way!”
I looked at my brother’s grim face. “Are Mormons bad?”
“Maybe not. But nobody I know wants them around.”
I parted the grass and eased my face through, hoping I could get a glimpse of a Mormon. At the same time, my heart thumped for fear that I might. I saw their wagons circling under the cottonwoods, and I drew back. “I think they are camping, Peter!”
Peter slapped the willow stick against his leg again. “They’ll see us if we try to sneak for home.”
I crept farther into the grass and hunched down. What would happen if they saw us, I dared not ask. My heart was pounding. I knew it was important to be very, very still.
But soon my feet began to burn inside my new shoes. One cramped-up foot began to feel the stab of a thousand little needles. I squirmed and tried to carefully change positions. But I tipped over, shaking the clump of grass we were hiding in. Peter glared at me as I tried to right myself. And as I did, I saw the willows just beyond us wiggle!
A little girl, about my size, stepped through them. Her blue eyes opened wide with surprise when she saw us. Then she smiled. “Hello. Were you planning to fish here too?”
I thought Peter would answer her, but he didn’t, so I said, “We came to cut a willow stick. Peter is making a whistle for my birthday. We—we thought you were Mormons.”
She stepped closer to us, pulling her skirt through the willows behind her. Lifting her chin, she said, “We are.”
I was going to warn her about the mud puddle, but I was somehow speechless. She stepped into the mud with bare feet—bare feet already covered with dust.
She looked hopefully at Peter. “Would you make a whistle for my little brother, Billy? He’s awful sick. A whistle might cheer him some.”
Now Peter puffed himself up. “Not for a Mormon boy, I wouldn’t! And you have no right to stop here, you know!”
The little girl bit her lip. “We must stop somewhere to rest. I only wanted to find a willow to use for a fishing pole. I—I hoped to catch a fish for Billy’s supper.”
Peter growled, “The fish in this creek don’t belong to Mormons, either.”
I wanted to take away her hurt look. “They belong to God,” I piped up, ignoring Peter’s glare.
“Of course,” she agreed. “That’s why we stopped here. We pray to know where to stop, to know where we might find food.”
I thought of all the good things Mama had cooked for my birthday dinner, so much that we hadn’t eaten half of it: chicken dumplings, bread pudding swimming in fresh cow’s cream, and lots of other good things. Now just the thoughts of it choked me some.
“It’s high time we tell Pa, Amy,” Peter told me. “He’ll see that these Mormons move on!”
Peter broke out of the willows and began running across the fields toward home. I hung back, biting my lip and hurting inside for the Mormon girl. She turned away and started toward the wagons.
“Wait!” I called out, making a sudden decision.
She hesitated, and I sat down and tugged at one of my new shoes. “These are my birthday shoes,” I hollered to her. “They hurt me. I’m going to throw them in the creek!” I held the shoe high as if to throw it.
She came running back. “Oh, please don’t throw your shoes in the creek!”
She reached for the shoe, and I saw the plea in her eyes. Grinning, I handed her the matching one. I think she could tell, then, that I wanted to be her friend.
“Don’t worry about how my brother talked,” I told her. “Papa is a kind man. He’ll let you fish in our creek. I’m sure he will.” I turned and ran across the field in my bare feet. I hardly felt the dry stubble of the field, my steps seemed so light.
As I stood in the kitchen, trying to catch my breath, I studied the faces of my parents. Peter had already told them about the Mormons. “God told them to stop here because they’re hungry,” I burst out. “And there’s a little boy who’s very sick.”
Mama and Papa looked thoughtful. I touched Papa’s hand. “Couldn’t we help them? Do we need to drive Mormons away?”
Peter noticed my shoeless feet. “Look! I bet Amy gave her new shoes to that Mormon girl!”
I looked at Mama. “They hurt me,” I said.
Mama drew me close. “And they hurt you even more when another little girl had none, is that it?”
Oh, how I loved Mama at that moment. And I loved Papa extra special when he said, “I wonder how we’d feel right now, if we sat down to all those leftovers from Amy’s birthday dinner.”
I would choke, I knew I would. Papa knew I would too.
Peter frowned. “You mean you aren’t going to get the men in town to help drive them away?”
“No, I’m going to have you get a slab of side meat out of the smokehouse. And maybe a sack of that meal we still have in the pantry.”
Good, kind Papa!
“And chicken dumplings for little Billy?” I asked.
I heard the thwack of the willow stick against Peter’s leg. He still had the whistle stick in his hand. I looked at Mama and Papa and said, “Peter is making a whistle especially for a Mormon—for little Billy—aren’t you, Peter?”
Peter saw my grin, and the darkness in his face began to fade. “Well, I guess maybe I am.” Then he was grinning right along with the rest of us.