Thomas stood on the banks of the Mississippi River, his bare hands pushed deep inside the pockets of his overcoat. His breath came out in cloudy puffs, and his teeth chattered steadily.
Thomas watched as a chunk of ice bigger than a wagon wheel slowly drifted by. The ferry had been moored for days, and the muddy banks of the river were frozen and hard. The Saints who had hoped to leave Nauvoo ahead of the Canadian storm had been delayed; there was no hope of crossing the icy river before spring.
Thomas had never seen a storm like the one that hit Nauvoo that February 1846. The weather had been mild and warm the first half of the month, and President Brigham Young had exhorted the members of the Church to leave Nauvoo for the camp at Sugar Creek. Many families had followed his admonition. The ferry carried heavy loads of people, animals, and wagons across the river continually until the temperatures dropped. Almost overnight, the storm blew in with a terrible fury. Bitter cold winds pounded Thomas’s wood-frame house from the north, doors and shutters clattering loudly. Great mounds of snow piled up on the streets of Nauvoo. The stinging, harsh blizzard had gone on for days. This morning was the first time Thomas was able to see the ice-choked river.
“Thomas!” called his younger brother, Joseph. “Mama needs those eggs from Sister Patterson right away!”
Thomas looked back across the river one more time. “All right, Joseph. I’m coming.” He pulled his woolen scarf closer around his neck and met his brother halfway up the hill.
Joseph was a year younger than Thomas, but he was already nearly as tall. Named for the Prophet Joseph Smith, he had been born three days before the Prophet’s thirty-first birthday. Joseph’s cheeks and nose were red from the cold, and he was blowing on his hands to keep them warm.
“You run home, Joseph,” Thomas said. “Tell Mama I’m on my way with the eggs for her custard.”
Joseph nodded and loped off. Thomas could see their house up the road and knew that Joseph would soon be sitting in front of the warm hearth.
Mama rarely made her delicious egg custard anymore, especially since they had sold their best laying hens to the Pattersons. Papa said that the hens would never survive the journey west and that the family needed the money to buy more basic supplies. But this morning Mama had declared that they would have custard for dessert and had sent Thomas for the fresh eggs. He knew that his father and mother had been fasting and praying about the weather and that this special dessert was his mother’s way of expressing gratitude for the slivers of sunshine that had broken through the gray clouds today.
As the family gathered around the table to pray over their simple meal, Thomas could see that his father was discouraged. “There was trouble in town again today,” his father said. “Let us pray that the Lord will provide a way for us to leave Nauvoo before anyone is seriously harmed. We are packed and ready to go. There must be a way!”
Thomas bowed his head along with his parents and brothers and sisters, but in his heart he felt a twinge of fear. He did not want to leave Nauvoo.
Although most of their furniture and farming equipment had been sold to purchase a wagon and food supplies, their home was still cozy and warm, and there was always enough to eat. He had been just a little boy when his family was driven from their home in Missouri by an angry mob and forced to settle in the marshy wetlands of Commerce, Illinois. It had been cold then, too, and he remembered how he had cried for a cup of milk. But over the years, he had seen Commerce become the beautiful city of Nauvoo, a place where the Prophet Joseph Smith would stop and play stickball with Thomas and his friends, then invite them to his home for a glass of cool lemonade. Though it had been a year and a half since the Prophet’s death, he ducked his head to hide his tears.
“Thomas?” his Mama asked softly. “Are you well?”
His older sister, Mary Jane, quietly said, “He doesn’t want to go west, Mama.”
Papa put down his fork and folded his arms across his chest. “Is this true, Son?”
Thomas gulped. “Yes, Papa,” he whispered.
He heard his mother sigh, and he felt ashamed. It had already been decided that Mama would leave her piano and her cherished spinning wheel behind. But she reached across the table and put her hand on top of his. “We all wish we could stay in Nauvoo. Here we have a lovely home, a prosperous farm, good friends and family, even a beautiful new temple. But the Lord has promised us peace, and we will never find that here.”
Thomas nodded and tried to hold back the tears that still pushed against his eyelids. His father saw him struggling and slowly slid back his chair. “Mama, save us some of your custard. Thomas and I are going to check on the horses.”
Thomas put on his overcoat and scarf and followed his father out to the barn. The sky was clear, and the air was as sharp as a knife in his lungs. Inside the barn, his father lit a lantern and stamped his feet. “Mighty cold out tonight,” he said. “We must pray for our brothers and sisters who are spending this night in a tent or a wagon box.”
Thomas plopped down on a bale of hay. “Papa, if we had crossed the river with the others last week, we would be out there in a tent tonight!”
His father sat beside him, reaching out to stroke the mane of his favorite horse. “I know, Son. The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“Then why can’t we wait until spring … or even summer? Why must we leave now?”
“You do not realize the danger that surrounds us. I was a close friend of the Prophet Joseph, and his enemies are my enemies.” Thomas felt his father tremble beside him. He looked up and saw the scar on his father’s cheek that had come from the leather thong of a bullwhip. He still remembered how his mother had cried over the wound, praying that God would forgive her for thinking terrible thoughts about the man who had whipped her husband. “And I think this is a test of our faith, Son. Will we follow the prophet—or not?”
Thomas blinked his eyes hard. Suddenly he remembered a very special occasion in his life.
It was May 1843, and he had just celebrated his eighth birthday. His mother had made a cake with butter icing, and he was eating a thick slice on the front porch when he saw a tall, handsome man coming down the lane. Thomas recognized him immediately—Brother Joseph—and ran to him.
Brother Joseph chuckled, “What’s this I hear about you today? I knew it was a special day when I woke up to a chorus of birds outside my window!”
“It’s my birthday, Brother Joseph!”
“Your birthday?” The Prophet waved to the boy’s mother in the garden and clasped his father in a warm embrace. “But it isn’t just any birthday, is it?”
“It’s my eighth birthday! Now I can be baptized!”
The Prophet sat on the porch steps and drew the boy down next to him. “A very special day indeed. But why do you want to be baptized?”
Thomas tried to stretch his legs out far like Brother Joseph’s. “So I can be a member of the Church like you and Papa and Mama and my older brothers and sisters!”
Brother Joseph nodded and put his arm around Thomas’s shoulders. “That’s good. But I think there’s more to it than that. If your family and I weren’t here, would you still want to be baptized?”
Thomas thought for a moment. “Yes, I would, Brother Joseph. Jesus wants me to be baptized, and I always want to follow Him.”
Tears filled Joseph’s kind eyes. “I want to follow Him, too, Thomas. It may be hard sometimes, but we will always be blessed.”
Thomas’s father cleared his throat. “Brother Joseph, we would be honored if you would baptize Thomas.”
Joseph laughed joyfully and ruffled Thomas’s hair. “I would be delighted,” he said.
Thomas felt his father’s arm around him. “Are you thinking about Brother Joseph, Thomas?”
“Yes,” was all he managed to whisper.
His father hugged him tighter. “When you are a grown man, your children and grandchildren will ask if you remember when you were baptized. Your heart will burst with pride when you tell them that you were baptized by the Prophet Joseph Smith. And then you will tell them how you followed another prophet of God through snow and cold and all sorts of trials so that they could live in a land of peace and enjoy all the blessings of the gospel without being afraid. For many generations, your family will honor you and be grateful for your sacrifices. Your life will be blessed, Thomas, in more ways than you will ever know.”
After Thomas finished his evening prayer, he crawled under the warm quilt. He could hear his mother and father talking downstairs. He was still afraid of what might happen on their journey west, but he felt a calm reassurance in his heart that all would be well.
The next morning, the family was awakened early by a whoop of joy. “It’s a miracle!” their neighbor, Brother Williams, shouted from the front gate. “The Mississippi River is frozen solid! Load up your wagons—we’re crossing over! The Lord has answered our prayers!”
Yes, He has, Thomas thought as he hurriedly dressed in the cold morning air.