John’s soggy shoes slid in the rutted ice alongside the handcart. A toe snagged on a half-buried rock, and he pitched forward into the snow.
Mama helped him up. “My feet hurt bad, Mama. Could I ride a little way in the handcart?”
“Papa’s too sick to pull extra weight, John. See the willows ahead? We’ll camp there tonight by the river.”
John peered through the falling snow. The willows were so far away! He counted steps: “One … two … three … ,” trying to forget the pain in his half-frozen feet. An ache started in his hands. It worsened until he could no longer concentrate.
His gaze fixed on Mama’s skirt, blowing stiffly in the rising wind. “Your skirt’s frozen, Mama.”
“Only the edges where it drags through the snow,” Mama said, hugging him. Then her light, sweet voice sang out, “Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear …”
Instantly, every voice in the handcart company took up the words. It was a camp rule that when one began singing that special hymn, all must join in.
As Papa’s thin frame pulled against the weight of the handcart, his lips moved soundlessly to the words. A fit of coughing doubled him over. He staggered and fell.
John leaped to Papa’s side and cradled his head in his lap. Men dropped their own handcarts and hurried to help. Papa whispered, “I just need a moment to catch my breath.” Heavy coughing shook him.
The men lifted Papa into the handcart. Tears trembled on Mama’s eyelashes as she tucked a warm buffalo robe around him.
Papa had said that the robes they had bought in Fort Laramie were a mixed blessing. Those who chose to keep warm with them might die of hauling the extra weight. John was glad now that they had discarded other things in order to keep them.
As the men went back to their own handcarts, Mama said, “It’s up to us now, John.” She took Papa’s place in front of the handcart. John stood beside her. His body strained. The handcart bumped slowly forward.
John’s feet, clumsy with cold, trudged inch by weary inch toward the willows. After a while, he felt neither hands nor feet, numbed as they were by wind-whipped snow and sleet.
Finally they reached the willows. “Get what rest you can,” the captain told the company. “Tomorrow we cross the river.”
Cross the river? John could see no ferry. The river was dark with slush ice. He shuddered.
Papa crawled from the handcart and steadied himself against the wheel, coughing weakly.
“I can make camp, Papal” cried John. Papa reached into the handcart for the tent. “Some are working who are sicker than I am,” he said.
Digging in the snow, John found a few sticks of firewood. Soon a pot of mush bubbled over a fire.
Mama scraped the mush into three bowls. “It’s such a little bit,” John sighed, gulping the steaming gruel.
“I know,” said Mama. “The company captain said we must cut the rations in half again.”
Papa spooned a bit of mush into his mouth. “Nobody dreamed that winter would come so early,” he murmured. “Nor be so savage.”
That night John huddled with Mama and Papa under the buffalo robes. Slowly, feeling returned to his hands and feet. Exhausted, he slept.
The next morning John awakened to a camp half buried in snow. In the fierce wind, he helped Mama and Papa pack the handcart. With other Saints, they struggled through the still-falling snow to the riverbank.
“Oh, Papa!” John stared at the rushing slush-thickened water.
“If I stumble, grab the handcart,” was all Papa said. Grimly he pulled the cart into the icy water.
John splashed in behind him. He gasped as the freezing water crept to his chest. Mama hiked up her long skirts and waded after him.
Chunks of jagged ice floated by. One slammed into Papa. He staggered and fell. Trying to reach him, John stepped on a sharp rock and slipped. In an instant, the freezing water closed over him.
Hands grabbed him and steadied him in the fast-moving current. He looked for Papa. There he was! Men were helping him across the river. He saw Mama pulling their handcart onto the far bank.
By the time John reached the handcart, the bitter wind had frozen his clothes to his body. Mama tore them off and helped him into dry things. She replaced her ice-crusted skirt with another one.
Reeling with cold, Papa found dry clothing. Mama shielded him from the storm with a buffalo robe while he changed.
Nobody in the group had strength enough to pitch a tent, but Mama spread their buffalo robes in the scant shelter of the handcart. They burrowed under them, hugging each other for warmth.
John heard snorting and stamping. Horses? That creaking—was it wagons? He poked his head from the covers.
“Papa! Mama!” he called. “It’s covered wagons pulling into camp!” Papa coughed, unable to answer. Mama’s blue lips moved, but no sound came. John scrambled from the covers to get help.
“Brigham Young sent us with provisions as soon as he heard about your company,” a rescuer told John.
“Your mama and papa are suffering from fatigue and exposure,” another said. “We’ll get them into a wagon right away.”
Soon fires blazed in the camp. John stood warming himself, breathing in the smell of sizzling buffalo meat and pan bread.
Given a plate of hot food, John could eat only a mouthful. He was so tired!
The rescuers lifted him into the wagon with Mama and Papa. Bundled under heavy quilts, he listened to Papa’s racking cough and labored breathing.
“Are you all right, Papa?”
Papa couldn’t speak for coughing. The wagon began to move through swirling snow toward Salt Lake. Weak voices of the handcart company joined joyfully with the strong voices of the rescuers. “But if our lives are spared again To see the Saints their rest obtain, Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell—All is well! All is well!”