Meltiar Hatch leaped to his feet and saluted the man on horseback. The Mormon Battalion had been on the march since dawn. Meltiar had taken advantage of a break to bring his 16-year-old brother, Orin, to rest in the shade of a tree. He hadn’t heard the officer’s horse until it was right next to him.
Lieutenant Smith returned Meltiar’s salute. “At ease, soldier.” He looked down at Orin, who lay unmoving, his eyes closed. “Your companion looks to be very ill.”
“Yes, sir,” Meltiar said sadly. “He contracted the fever at Fort Leavenworth, but I know that in time—”
“Time? Time?” Lieutenant Smith loudly interrupted. “This troop has no time. The untimely death of our former commanding officer has set us back two weeks. We cannot defer to the sick and the weary. Leave him.”
Meltiar’s protests were ignored as Lieutenant Smith turned and gave the order to assemble. As the drums sounded, men began to scramble to collect their provisions and line up. Meltiar sat down heavily and put his head in his hands.
“Meltiar,” Orin’s voice was barely audible. “Forgive me. I joined up only because I wanted to finally be useful, like you were in Nauvoo. I never imagined it would end like this.”
“Well, none of us imagined we’d ever be led by Lieutenant Smith, either. Few of the non-Mormon leaders have been unkind; he’s just the worst of the lot. Let’s not forget the promises given by Brigham Young and the Twelve,” Meltiar said with conviction. “If we conduct ourselves properly on this march, our lives will be spared.” He put his pack and canteen in Orin’s hands. “Here is some extra food and some water. I must go now, but I’ll be back, I promise.” He got to his feet.
“I never meant to be a burden.”
“Brothers can never be burdens.”
When the battalion made camp for the night, Meltiar quietly slipped away and began his journey back to the place where Orin waited. Much in need of rest, he sat down by a tree and quickly fell asleep. Later, he awoke with a start. He couldn’t remember why he was alone in the woods in the middle of the night, but sensed that someone’s life depended on him. Meltiar shook his head to clear his jumbled thoughts.
His first thought was that he was still a messenger in the Nauvoo Legion.
He spoke aloud to himself. “The Prophet Joseph is dead. I couldn’t have prevented his assassination. However, I should have found help when my horse went lame, instead of trying to walk to Carthage. Then I might have been able to deliver the last message from his loved ones before he died.” He shook his head sadly. “But I was young and full of pride, just as Orin is now.”
At the thought of his brother, Meltiar stumbled to his feet. That’s whose life depended on him now! Weary as he was, he had to keep walking. The two previous nights, Meltiar had another soldier help him bring Orin back to camp on horseback. Each morning, when Lieutenant Smith discovered what had happened, he angrily ordered that Orin be left behind again. Last night Lieutenant Smith had informed Meltiar that if he wanted to keep up his “foolhardy venture,” he could no longer disturb the sleep of other men or beasts. That was why he was now alone and on foot. And he knew that he must be only about a third of the way back to where he’d left his brother.
Meltiar had prayed fervently for help when he’d set out. He knew he had an impossible task. Even if he had not been exhausted from lack of sleep, it would take him most of the night just to reach Orin on foot. Although Orin was much improved and could probably walk, he couldn’t travel very fast in his weakened condition. Meltiar knew that if he didn’t get back to the battalion before it pulled out at dawn, it would leave them both behind. But he also knew that he could never leave Orin.
Several times on these night trips, Meltiar had had the uneasy feeling that he was being watched. Now he was certain he saw movement by a large rock up ahead. He stopped walking and slowly reached for his pistol. But the pistol was gone! He must have dropped it back where he had fallen asleep. He started to reach for his knife but froze when an Indian stepped out of the shadows. In the light of the moon something glinted in the Indian’s hand. It was Meltiar’s pistol!
As Meltiar stood wondering what to do, he heard the sound of a horse approaching. Could someone from the battalion be following me? he wondered. Or could it be another Indian? The Indian appeared not to have heard the sound, but stood unmoving, the gun down at his side.
When the horse came into the clearing, Meltiar’s heart sank when he saw that it was an Indian pony with two riders. Meltiar closed his eyes and prayed for help.
“Meltiar?” a familiar voice said.
Startled, Meltiar opened his eyes to see that one of the riders had dismounted and was approaching him cautiously.
“Meltiar?” the voice repeated. “Is that you?”
The two brothers rushed together in a brief, fierce hug, then turned to face the waiting Indians. The Indians had both mounted the pony, leaving the brothers’ guns and packs on the ground. One Indian slowly raised his hand in a salute. “Brothers,” he said before they turned and rode off into the shadows.
“That’s what he said when he came and got me,” Orin said. “I thought he meant that something had happened to you, so I went with him, even though I was scared. How did they know we were brothers?”
“They’ve been watching us these past few nights,” Meltiar said with sudden realization. “And maybe they could see how much we cared for each other. They could also see how much we needed their aid, so they helped us! Or—” he smiled at Orin— “maybe he meant that we are all brothers.”
“I’m grateful for their help,” Orin said softly, “but sometimes it isn’t easy to accept help from others.”
“I know what you mean.” Meltiar leaned on Orin. “But if you are as strong as you look, now it’s time for you to be useful. I need your help to walk back to camp. I hate to be a burden, but I am very tired!”
“I am much stronger now, Meltiar. Don’t worry,” Orin told him with a smile. “Brothers can never be burdens.”