“The Crossing,” Friend, Aug.–Sept. 1979, 34
Henry had dreamed restlessly during the night about the river, so when he awoke he was sure he could hear the roar of water as it dashed against a riverbank just outside the covered wagon. We’ll cross it today, he told himself, shivering. In all his twelve years he couldn’t remember when he had been more frightened. Quickly he pulled on his boots and scrambled onto the front seat of the wagon. Outside, his sister-in-law Mary Anne was cooking their breakfast gruel in a big iron pot over the campfire. His brother William was watering the cattle. Henry looked for the river but saw only the flat, barren plains they had traveled across for so many days. The sun was bright and the world looked cheerful. No river anywhere. Henry sighed with relief and jumped to the ground.
“Morning, Henry,” William greeted his brother pleasantly. “Get the team hitched. High time we were on the move.”
William was a captain of ten wagons including his own. In order to help him Henry had left his parents and younger brothers at Council Bluffs to travel with William and Mary Anne to the Salt Lake Valley. He drove William’s wagon while his brother rode their horse Clarice and helped the other wagons, always keeping an eye out for Indians.
“How far to the Platte River, William?” Henry held his breath while he waited for the answer. He remembered crossing another river after they left Nauvoo and how the waters had rushed against the wagon, pulling it downstream and almost overturning it. He was only eight at the time and his mother had held him close. Now when he thought about driving the wagon and team across a river by himself, a cold knot of fear tightened in his stomach.
“We’ll cross the Platte before nightfall, Henry. Tonight we’ll sleep on the far bank!” William said, smiling fondly at his younger brother. He touched Clarice lightly on the flank and moved down the line of wagons.
Henry hurriedly ate his breakfast and hitched the oxteam. But all through the long, hot day his fear of the river increased. In spite of his worry, Henry kept one eye on the team he was driving and the other on Leo, William’s steer that followed along with the other loose cattle. The company had twenty-four head, and one of Henry’s jobs was to see that Leo didn’t wander off. Henry and Leo had become good friends on the long journey west.
The afternoon sun was low in the sky when the caravan finally reached the river. Henry saw it as the wagon came up over a little rise. He stared at the dark, muddy water that wound like a long snake across the flat land. It doesn’t look too bad, he thought with relief. I’m sure I can drive the wagon across by myself.
William rode by on his horse. “Move the wagon up to the bank, Henry,” he directed. “We’re going to ford it here in the shallowest place.”
Farther downstream there was fast water swirling into eddies, and Henry was relieved that William had picked this place for crossing. When he reached the bank, Henry could see that the first wagons were already halfway across the river and that the animals had to swim only about twenty yards.
There were two wagons ahead of Henry now, and he had to be ready to go into the river. His hands tightened on the reins and he tried to start the animals forward, but his body wouldn’t move. He glanced down and found that his hands were trembling. William was beside the wagon, watching. “Henry, you’re pale as a ghost. You feel all right?”
“I … I’m fine, William, honest.” Henry tried again to start the team, but his body wouldn’t respond.
William swung down from his horse and leaped onto the wagon seat beside him. “You don’t look so good to me,” he said. “You ride Clarice, Henry, and I’ll drive the team across.” William took the reins from Henry’s trembling hands and flicked the oxen. “Haw!” he yelled, and the wagon lurched forward. Henry didn’t argue. He clambered over William’s feet and jumped to the ground, his face hot with shame but with relief flooding through his body.
“Mind you watch the cattle,” William called over his shoulder as the wagon rumbled into the river.
Henry mounted the horse and watched the procession of wagons fording the stream. He wished desperately that the river would swallow him up. How can I ever face William again? he wondered. What a baby I am!
The last wagon was in the water now and there had been no trouble at all. Only the loose cattle and a herdsman on horseback were left to cross.
Henry was in the water watching the line of wagons stretching out on the other side of the river when some of the cattle started to sink in the soggy banks. Panicking, they let out great bellows and began to run downstream. This frightened the cattle already partway across and they turned back, following the others down the river. Before anyone could stop them, all twenty-four animals were caught in the current and drifting into the deep, swirling white water.
Henry knew how important the cattle were in settling a new land. When he caught sight of Leo, swimming madly with the others, he could see how frightened the animal was. Without thinking, Henry nudged Clarice and drove her straight downriver. She balked and would have turned back, but Henry pressed her on. Icy water splashed over them as Clarice plunged into the deep water. Henry bent forward, grasped the mare’s slippery neck, and held on tightly as they swam toward the animals.
Now they were among the cattle, the whole herd swimming frantically, their eyes wild with fear. The current caught Henry and the horse. All the boy could do was hold fast and try to see through the foaming water.
As they came near Leo’s head, Henry reached for a horn. The steer jerked away in fright and Henry nearly plunged headlong into the water. Keeping his legs locked around the mare’s body, he struggled upright and clung to her, gasping for breath. Again they came near the steer and Henry grasped the horn firmly, this time hanging on. With his other hand he pulled on the reins, turning Clarice toward the far shore. She swam steadily against the current and Henry clung to Leo’s horn with all his strength.
Finally they reached quiet water, and when Henry looked back he saw that all the other animals were following. One by one, the animals left the eddy and swam after Henry, who had Leo firmly in tow.
When Clarice finally scrambled up the bank, Henry slid from her back and lay exhausted on the sand. The men were in the shallow water now, leading their animals to safety.
William and Mary Anne knelt beside Henry. “You gave us quite a scare,” William said. “Guess you’ll be a hero for a while around here.”
Henry looked up into his brother’s face and saw admiration and relief written plainly on his features. He smiled and said, “Next time, I’ll drive the wagon across if you don’t mind.”
William laughed and helped Henry to his feet. “Let’s move. If we hurry, we can make camp before sundown.”
Henry gratefully jumped onto the wagon and took the reins once again. They felt good in his hands as he guided the wagon toward the setting sun.