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History Mormon Battalion Chapter 01 Section M

Not being able thus to watch his course, he lost his way and had to regain it through a wretched tract of low meadow prairie, where there were no trees to break the noon, nor water but what was ague-sweet or brackish. By the time he got back to the trail of the high prairie, he was, in his own phrase, “pretty far gone!” Yet he was resolute in his purpose as ever, and to a party he fell in with, avowed his intention to be cured at the camp, and nowhere else! He even jested with them, comparing his jolting couch to a summer cot in a whitewashed cockloft. “But I’ll make them take me down,” he said, “and give me a dip in the river when I get there. All I care for is to see the brethren.”

His determined bearing rallied the spirit of his traveling household, and they kept on their way till he was within a few hours’ journey of the camp. He entered on his last day’s journey with the energy of increased hope.

I remember that day well. For in the evening I mounted a tired horse to go a short errand, and in mere pity had to turn back before I had walked him a couple of hundred yards. Nothing seemed to draw life from the languid air but the clouds of gnats and stinging midges; and long after sundown it was so hot that the sheep lay on their stomachs panting, and the cattle strove to lap wind like hard fagged hunting dogs. In camp, I had spent the day in watching the invalids, and the rest hunting the shade under the wagon bodies, and veering about them like the shadows round the sundial. I know I thought myself wretched enough to be of their company.

Poor Merryman had all that heat to bear, with the mere pretense of an awning to screen out the sun from his close muslin cockloft.

He did not fail till somewhere hard upon noon. He then began to grow restless, to know accurately the distance traveled. He made them give him water, too, much more frequently; and when they stopped for this purpose, asked a number of obscure questions. A little after this he discovered himself that a film had come over his eyes. He confessed that this was discouraging; but said with stubborn resignation, that if denied to see the brethren, he still should hear the sound of their voices.

After this, which was when he was hardly three miles from our camp, he lay very quiet, as if husbanding his strength; but when he had made, as is thought, a full mile further, being interrogated by the woman that was driving, whether she should stop, he answered her, as she avers, “No, no! go on!”

The anecdote ends badly. They brought him in dead, I think about five o’clock of the afternoon. He had on his clean clothes, as he had dressed himself in the morning, looking forward to his arrival.

Beside the common duty of guiding and assisting these unfortunates, the companies in the van united in providing the highway for the entire body of emigrants. The Mormons have laid out for themselves a road through the Indian Territory, over four hundred leagues in length, with substantial, well-built bridges, fit for the passage of heavy artillery, over all the streams, except a few great rivers where they have established permanent ferries. The nearest unfinished bridging to the Papillon camp was that of the Corne a Cerf, or Elk Horn, a tributary of the Platte, distant, may be, a couple of hours’ march. Here, in what seemed to be an incredibly short space of time, there rose the seven great piers and abutments of a bridge, such as might challenge honors for the entire public-spirited population of Lower Virginia. The party detailed to the task worked in the broiling sun, in water beyond depth, and up to their necks, as if engaged in the perpetration of some pointed and delightful practical joke. The chief sport lay in floating along with the logs, cut from the overhanging timber up the stream, guiding them till they reached their destination, and then plunging them under water in the precise spot where they were to be secured. This, the laughing engineers would execute with the agility of happy diving ducks.

Our nearest ferry was that over the Missouri. Nearly opposite the Pull Point, or Point aux Poules, a trading post of the American Fur Company, and village of the Pottawatamies, they had gained a favorable crossing, by making a deep cut for the road through the steep right bank. And here, without intermission, their flat-bottomed scows plied, crowded with the wagons, and cows, and sheep, and children, and furniture of the emigrants, who, in waiting their turn, made the woods around smoke with their crowding camp fires. But no such good fortune as a gratuitous passage awaited the heavy cattle, of whom, with the others, no less than 30,000 were at this time on their way westward: these were made to earn it by swimming.

A heavy freshet had at this time swollen the river to a width, as I should judge, of something like a mile and a half, and dashed past, its fierce current, rushing, gurgling and eddying, as if thrown from a mill race, or scriptural fountain of the deep. Its aspect did not invite the oxen to their duty, and the labor was to force them to it. They were gathered in little troops on the shore, and driven forward till they lost their footing. As they turned their heads to return, they encountered the combined opposition of a clamorous crowd of bystanders, vieing with each other in the pungent administration of inhospitable affront. Then rose their hub-hub: their geeing, and wooing, and hawing; their yelling, and yelping, and screaming; their hooting and hissing and pelting. The rearmost steers would hesitate to brave such a rebuff; halting, they would impede the return of the outermost; they all would waver: wavering for a moment, the current would sweep them together downward. At this juncture a fearless youngster, climbing upon some brave bull in the front rank, would urge him boldly forth into the stream: the rest then surely followed; a few moments saw them struggling in mid current; a few more, and they were safely landed on the opposite shore. The driver’s was the sought-after post of honor here; and sometimes, when repeated failures have urged them to emulation, I have seen the youths, in stepping from back to back of the struggling monsters, or swimming in among their battling hoofs, display feats of address and hardihood, that would have made Franconi’s or the Madrid bull-ring vibrate with bravos of applause. But in the hours after hours that I have watched this sport at the ferry side, I never heard an oath or the language of quarrel, or knew it provoke the least sign of ill feeling.
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After the sorrowful word was given out to halt, and make preparation for winter, a chief labor became the making of hay; and with every day-dawn brigades of mowers would take up the march to their positions in chosen meadows-a prettier sight than a charge of cavalry-as they laid their swaths, whole companies of scythes abreast. Before this time the manliest as well as the most general daily labor, was the herding of the cattle; the only wealth of the Mormons, and more and more cherished by them with the increasing pastoral character of their lives. A camp could not be pitched in any spot without soon exhausting the freshness of the pasture around it, and it became an ever recurring task to guide the cattle, in unbroken droves, to the nearest place where it was still fresh and fattening. Sometimes it was necessary to go farther, to distant ranges which were known as feeding grounds of the buffalo. About these there was sure to prowl parties of thievish Indians; and each drove therefore had its escort of mounted men and boys, who learned self-reliance and heroism while on night-guard alone among the silent hills. But generally the cattle were driven from the camp at the dawn of the morning, and brought back, thousands together, in the evening, to be picketed in the great corral or enclosure, where beeves, bulls, cows and oxen, with the horses, mules, hogs, calves, sheep and human beings, could all look together upon the red watch-fires, with the feeling of security when aroused by the Indian stampede, or the howlings of the prairie wolves at moonrise.

When they set about building their winter houses, too, the Mormons went into quite considerable timbering operations, and performed desperate feats of carpentry. They did not come ornamental gentlemen or raw apprentices, to extemporize new versions of Robinson Crusoe. It was a comfort to notice the readiness with which they turned their hands to woodcraft; some of them, though I believe these had generally been bred carpenters, wheelwrights, or more particularly boat-builders, quite out-doing the most notable voyageurs in the use of the ax. One of these would fell a tree, strip off its bark, cut and split up the trunk in piles of plank, scantling, or shingles; make posts, pins, and pales-everything wanted almost of the branches; and treat his toil, from first to last, with more sportive flourish than a school-boy whittling his shingle.

Inside the camp the chief labors were assigned to the women. From the moment, when after the halt, the lines had been laid, the spring wells dug out, and the ovens and fireplaces built, though the men still assumed to set the gaurds and enforce the regulations of police, the empire of the tented town was with the better sex. They were the chief comforters of the severest sufferers the kind nurses who gave them, in their sickness, those dear attentions, with which pauperism is hardly poor, and which the greatest wealth often fails to buy. And they were a nation of wonderful managers. They could hardly be called housewives in etymological strictness, but it was plain they had once been such, and most distinguished ones. Their art availed them in their changed affairs. With almost their entire culinary material limited to the milk of their cows, some store of meal or flour and a very few condiments, they brought their thousand and one receipts into play with a success that outdid for their families the miracle of the Hebrew widow’s cruse. They learned to make butter on a march by the dashing of the wagon, and so nicely to calculate the working of barm in the jolting heats, that, as soon after the halt as an oven could be dug in the hill-side and heated, their well-kneaded loaf was ready for baking, and produced good leavened bread for supper. I have no doubt the appetizing zest their humble lore succeeded in imparting to diet which was both simple and meagre, availed materially for the health as well as the comfort of the people.

But the first duty of the Mormon women was, through all change of place and fortune, to keep alive the altar fire of home. Whatever their manifold labors for the day, it was their effort to complete them against the sacred hour of evening fall. For by that time all the out-workers, scouts, ferrymen or bridge men, road makers, herdsmen, or hay-makers, had finished their tasks and come in to their rest. And before the last smoke of the supper-fire curled up, reddening in the glow of the sunset, a hundred chimes of cattle bells announced their looked-for approach across the open hills; and the women went out to meet them at the camp gates, and with their children in their laps sat by them at the cherished family meal, and talked over the events of the well-spent day.

But every day closed as every day began, with an invocation of the divine favor; without which, indeed, no Mormon seemed to dare to lay him down to rest. With the first shining of the stars, laughter and loud talking hushed, the neighbor went his way, you heard the last hymn sung, and then the thousand-voiced murmur of prayer was heard, like babbling water falling down the hills.

There was no austerity, however about the religion of Mormonism. Their fasting and penance, it is no jest to say, was altogether involuntary. They made no merit of that. They kept the Sabbath with considerable strictness: they were too close copyists of the wanderers of Israel in other respects not to have learned like them the value of this most admirable of the Egypto-Mosaic institutions. But the rest of the week, their religion was independent of ritual observance. They had the sort of strong-stomached faith that is still found embalmed in sheltered spots of Catholic Italy and Spain, with the spirit of the believing or dark ages. It was altogether too strongly felt to be dependent on intellectual ingenuity or careful caution of the ridiculous. It mixed itself up fearlessly with the common transactions of their every-day life, and only to give them liveliness and color.

If any passages of life bear better than others a double interpretation, they are the adventures of travel and of the field. What old persons call discomforts and discouraging mishaps, are the very elements to the young and sanguine of what they are willing to term “fun.” The Mormons took the young and hopeful side. They could make sport and frolic of their trials, and often turn right sharp suffering into right round laughter against themselves. I certainly heard more jests and “Joe Millers” while in this Papillon camp than I am likely to hear in all the remainder of my days.

This, too, was at a time of serious affliction. Beside the ordinary suffering from insufficient food and shelter, distressing and mortal sickness, exacerbated, if nor originated, by these causes, was generally prevalent.

In the camp nearest us on the West, Which was that of the bridging party near the Corne, the number of its inhabitants being small enough to invite computation, I found as early as the 31st of July, that 37 per cent. of its inhabitants were down with the fever, and a sort of strange scorbutic disease, frequently fatal, which they named the Black Canker. The camps to the east of us, which were all on the eastern side of the Missouri, were yet worse fated.

The climate of the entire upper “Misery Bottom,” as they term it, is, during a considerable part of summer and autumn, singularly pestiferous. Its rich soil, which is, to a depth far beyond the reach of the plow, as fat as the earth of a kitchen garden, or compost heap, is annually the force-bed of a vegetation as rank as that of the tropics. To render its fatal fertility the greater, it is everywhere freely watered by springs, and creeks, and larger streams, that flow into it from both sides. In the season of drought when the sun enters Virgo, these dry down till they run impure as open sewers, exposing to the day foul broad flats, mere quagmires of black dirt, stretching along for miles, unvaried, except by the limbs of half-buried carrion tree trunks, or by occasional yellow pools of what the children call frog spawn; all together steaming up thick vapors redolent of the savor of death.

The same is the habit of the great river. In the beginning of August, its shores hardly could contain the millions of forest logs, and tens of billions of gallons of turbid water, that came rushing down together from its mountain head gates. But before the month was out, the freshet had all passed by; the river diminished one-half, threaded feebly southward through the center of the valley, and the mud of its channel, baked and creased, made a wide tile pavement between the choking crowd of reeds, and sedgy grasses, and wet stalked weeds, and growths of marsh meadow flowers, the garden homes, at this tainted season, of venom-crazy snakes, and the fresher ooze by the water’s edge, which stank in the sun like a naked muscle shoal.

Then the plague raged. I have no means of ascertaining the mortality of the Indians who inhabited the bottom. In 1845, the year previous, which was not more unhealthy, they lost one-ninth of their number in about two months. The Mormons were scourged severely. The exceeding mortality among some of them, was, no doubt, in the main, attributable to the low state to which their systems had been brought by long continued endurance of want and hardship. It is to be remembered, also, that they were the first turners up of the prairie sod, and that this of itself made them liable to the sickness of new countries. It was where their agricultural operations had been most considerable, and in situations on the left bank of the river, where the prevalent south-west winds wafted to them the miasmata of its shores, that disease was most rife.

In some of these the fever prevailed to such an extent that hardly any escaped it. They let their cows go unmilked, they wanted for voices to raise the psalm of Sundays. The few who were able to keep their feet, went about among the tents and wagons with food and water, like nurses through the wards of an infirmary. Here at one time the digging got behind hand: burials were slow; and you might see women sit in the open tents keeping the flies off their dead children, sometimes after decomposition had set in.

In our own camp, for a part of August and September things wore an unpleasant aspect enough. Its situation was one much praised for its comparative salubrity; but, perhaps, on this account, the number of cases of fever among us was increased by the hurrying arrival, from other localities, of parties in whom the virus leaven of disease was fermented by forced travel.

But I am excused sufficiently the attempt to get up for your entertainment here any circumstantial picture of horrors, by the fact, that at the most interesting season, I was incapaciated for nice observation by an attack of fever-mine was what they call the congestive-that it required the utmost use of all my faculties to recover from. I still kept my tent in the camp line; but, for as much as a month, had very small notion of what went on among my neighbors. I recollect overhearing a lamentation over some dear baby, that its mother no doubt thought the destroying angel should have been specially instructed to spare. I wish, too, for my own sake, I could forget how imperfectly one day I mourned the decease of a poor Saint, who, by clamor, rendered his vicinity troublesome. He, no doubt, endured great pain; for he groaned shockingly till death came to his relief. He interfered with my own hard-gained slumbers, and-I was glad when death did relieve him.

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