Crack of the Whip

By Mary Pratt Parrish

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    Tommy and Betsy were down at the creek scrubbing the breakfast dishes with clean white sand when they heard Brigham Young call the Saints to the central square. They barely had time to rinse the dishes in the boiling water their mother had ready before the five thousand people at Sugar Creek, Iowa, camp gathered to hear what Brigham Young, their leader, had to say. His message was brief: “I propose to go forward on our journey. Let all who wish, follow me.”

    Tommy was jubilant. He grabbed Betsy by the hand and whirled her around, saying, “We’re going out west. At last we’re going out west.” Suddenly he stood still and said, “We can’t go out west now! Pa isn’t here.”

    Tommy’s mother could see the disappointment in his face. “Your father will probably be here by noon tomorrow,” she said. “He expected to finish up his work in St. Joseph today, and if we have everything ready, we can leave as soon as he arrives.”

    Tommy felt better, and by the time President Young gave the signal for the long train of five hundred wagons to start moving, he and Betsy happily waved good-bye to many of their friends and neighbors. When the wagon train was out of sight, they hurried back to ask Mother what they could do to get ready to go.

    “You can churn the butter,” Mother told Betsy.

    While Betsy was churning, Tommy filled the water barrel and secured it to the outside of the wagon so the family would have fresh water to drink when they could not camp by a spring or near a river. As Tommy was coming up from the creek, he saw a wagon drive into camp.

    “It’s Pa!” he cried, and he dropped the bucket he was carrying and ran to greet him.

    “Can we go out west now that you’ve come?” questioned Tommy. “Over half of the people have already gone.”

    Tommy’s father laughed. “I guess we won’t be going this afternoon,” he answered. “I bought another wagon and yoke of oxen in St. Joseph. That’s why I was able to return today; the men I went with won’t be back until tomorrow. The wagon is loaded with corn and wheat, and we must fix a cover to put over it.”

    “Who’s going to drive the new wagon?” asked Tommy.

    “I think your mother can drive it,” replied Father.

    “I could drive it,” said Tommy. Tommy’s father did not reply for a moment; then he said, “I think you could. We’ll let you try.” And before the oxen were unhitched from the wagon, Tommy’s father taught him how to hold the reins and how to crack the whip so as to startle the oxen but not to hurt them.

    Tommy was so anxious to drive the oxen that he worked all afternoon so they could be sure to start early the next morning. He soaked in the creek the six strips of special wood his father had brought from St. Joseph. When they were soft and pliable, he helped Father secure them to one side of the wagon box, bow them over, and secure them to the other side. Together they lifted the big canvas cover up and over the top of the bows and stretched it tightly before securing it to each side of the wagon.

    Afterwards Tommy helped his father make a long deep grub box, and together they secured it to one side of the wagon. The small chicken coop Father had brought from St. Joseph was attached to the other side for the six hens he had brought with him. Betsy hoped that one of the hens would have some baby chicks.

    Betsy and her mother packed the grub box with the dishes and the food they would use each day, then hung the big iron kettles on the outside of the wagon. When the dough was ready, Mother rolled some of it into loaves and Betsy made some biscuits to be baked over red hot coals in the dutch oven.

    The next morning Tommy got up especially early. He was too excited to sleep because he was thinking about driving the oxen. Finally the wagons were ready and he climbed onto the seat by the side of his mother to wait for the signal that would start the small train of thirty-two wagons toward the West.

    At last the signal came, and with a flip of the reins and a crack of the whip, Tommy’s wagon began to move. As it was the first time Tommy had ever driven, and he was so intent on what he was doing that he did not notice how bright the sun was shining nor how warm it was getting. He did not even notice that his mother had replaced her heavy winter coat with a light shawl. He only knew that it was necessary for him to crack the whip more often to keep the oxen moving. Suddenly he realized that this was because the ground was thawing; the wheels of the wagon were sinking deeper and deeper into the soft prairie mud, and it was harder and harder for the oxen to pull the load.

    Tommy was afraid that they would never catch up with the main wagon train that had left Sugar Creek the day before. He was surprised and happy when late that afternoon he heard the sound of voices and knew that the camp was not far away. He coaxed the oxen on in soft, soothing tones.

    “Steady now,” he said. “Pull together.” The oxen responded as if they understood every word. They lurched forward with such power that the wheels rolled easily, and soon Tommy found himself in camp surrounded by admiring friends.

    “Did you drive all the way from Sugar Creek?” one asked.

    “That’s great,” said another. “I wish my father would let me drive.”

    Suddenly it started to rain. At first it was a soft, gentle rain that did not bother Tommy as he milked the cow and helped his father feed the oxen. Later, when they started to pitch the tent, the rain came down in fierce, angry sheets that bit into Tommy’s shoulders. The wind blew so hard that it wrenched the tent out of their hands.

    “We’ll have to do without the tent tonight,” Father finally decided.

    “Where will you and Mamma sleep?” asked Tommy. “My wagon is too full of corn and wheat for anybody to sleep there.”

    “You and Betsy can sleep with Mamma in the other wagon,” answered his father, “and I will make a bed underneath it for me.”

    “I will sleep under the wagon,” said Tommy quietly.

    Father did not answer at once, but Tommy knew by the pressure of his hand that he was proud that his son had offered. Finally Father quietly said, “I’ll help you gather pine boughs to put on the ground so your bed won’t sink into the mud.”

    Tommy was glad when they had enough pine boughs, because it was difficult to cut them in the stinging rain. Over these pine boughs he and his father put the folded tent, leaving enough of it free on each side to pull over the bedroll so Tommy would not get wet.

    When the bed was ready, Tommy crawled into it. At first it was frightening to be alone in the storm. Never had he heard such loud thunder, and the lightning flashes were so close that he could see small fires appear in the tops of the trees where lightning had hit. Even though he knew the heavy rain would soon put them out, Tommy was afraid. What if the lightning should strike the wagon where the others are sleeping? he asked himself. He wanted to call out to his father for comfort, but he didn’t want anyone to know that he was afraid.

    I’ll ask Heavenly Father to help me, he said to himself. And he did. Tommy almost expected his prayer to be answered by the thunder and lightning stopping. Instead it was answered by Tommy not being afraid any more.

    Then Tommy began to enjoy the storm. It was almost as if giant fireworks were everywhere. Instead of wanting to go to sleep, he wanted to stay awake so he would not miss any of it. But since the storm lasted all night, Tommy’s eyes finally closed. He did not open them again until he felt water lapping at his feet and discovered that the little creek beside which they had camped had become a raging torrent during the night.

    Excitedly Tommy called out to his father, “The creek has overflowed and the back wheels of the wagon are standing in the water!”

    Tommy’s father was out of the wagon in an instant. When he saw the situation, he helped Tommy pull the bed out from under the wagon and then hitched up both teams of oxen to pull the wagon out of the water. The ground was so slippery the oxen could not get a foothold.

    “We will have to build a corduroy road,” said Tommy’s father.

    To do this, Tommy and his father cut down many trees. They trimmed off the limbs and laid the poles side by side, close to and in front of the wagon; then with willows they bound each log tightly to the next one so they would not roll. When this was finished, they packed tough grass and pine needles on top of the poles so the oxen’s hoofs could not slip into the cracks.

    Finally they coaxed the frightened oxen up onto the corduroy road and hitched them to the wagon. Father spoke to the oxen in a soothing tone, “Steady now, pull together.”

    The oxen did pull together. The heavy wagon wheels rolled out of the mud, onto the tough grass, over the corduroy road, and up onto the road that the Camp of Israel would be traveling that day.

    Tommy shouted, “Hooray!” and he could see by the look on his mother’s face that she was proud of her two “men.”

    Illustrated by Scott Snow