Journals to Novels
By Marvin Payne
I’m writing a novel. Actually, I just wrote a novel, finished about four minutes ago. It’s about the Utah War. A lot of people don’t know there was one. That’s because there wasn’t, really. But almost. The ‘almost’ is what they call the Utah War. Most people know there was a massacre at Mountain Meadows. Most people know that once upon a time the foundations of the Salt Lake Temple were covered over with dirt, which was then plowed to look like a farmer’s field. Most people have heard of a ‘Johnston’s Army.’ Many people have heard the phrase ‘those twin relics of barbarism, Slavery and Polygamy.’ The Utah War is what ties all those bits together.’
I’m going to share with you a chapter from the novel. I’m not sharing it because I want you all to become novelists. I’m sharing it because for years I’m been haranguing Backstage Graffiti readers to write in their journals, to get their histories down in ink. This chapter is because a nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint named Lot Smith did just that, without even reading Backstage Graffiti! His account of harrassing the US Army and burning their supply trains is about the best read I’ve had in years. In writing the aformentioned chapter, I dipped into his account like a hungry soul at Chuck-a-rama.
‘Jeroboam’ is an eleven-year-old orphan who accompanied the army to Utah as a con man’s apprentice. I made up this guy. Everyone else in the chapter is real.
Jeroboam could hear, far off, some of Dawson’s men, restless like himself, talking around a fire. He fell asleep again. Then he woke up and didn’t hear anyone talking. Of course, they could have gone to sleep, but Jeroboam had a funny feeling that there was another reason for the quiet. He slipped from his blankets, slid into his boots, and snuck off toward Dawson’s train.
The wagons were in two rows, fifty-two of them. They were two trains, really, resting tonight in two rows, some distance apart from one another. Jeroboam crept between the rows toward the fire, and the quiet. After a bit, he could see that the wagoneers were standing, not sitting, by the fire. They were staring up into the face of a rider, whose pixie eyes reflected the firelight even this far off. Stretching out behind him was a line of other riders, all armed with muskets and repeating pistols, trailing away into the dark. It looked like there could have been two hundred out there, at least. The lead rider spoke.
‘I wonder if I might speak to the captain of your train’?
Mr. Dawson stepped out and said that he, Dawson, was the man.
‘Sir, I have a little business with you.’
‘What’s your business, then’? asked Dawson.
‘Well, I’d like you to get all of your men and their personal property as quickly as possible out of the wagons.’
‘What on earth for?’
‘I mean to put a little fire into them.’
Dawson lost all control. ‘For God’s sake, don’t burn the trains!’
The rider answered, ‘But it’s for His sake that I’m going to burn them.’
Dawson didn’t get it. He wasn’t really listening for religious ideas. The rider barked at the wagoneers, who stood as though dumb. ‘Stack your arms yonder.’ They did. He then pointed to another spot, far apart from the weapons, and said, more quietly, ‘Stand there, if you will,’ and he put a guard over them. More wagoneers began appearing, their faces at first curious and then frightened. Each was directed to stack his weapons with the others, if he was carrying any, and to stand silently by the guard. The man so politely giving all the orders sent a scout riding out into the night in one direction, but failed to send one in the other, toward where the army was camped.’
About then, a soldier came riding up from that direction. He didn’t seem to understand what was going on and the pixie rider asked him if he had orders to deliver to the wagoneers.
‘I do, but they’re not written down.’
‘Well, just tell me, instead.’
‘And if you lie to me, your life isn’t worth a straw.’
The soldier didn’t need to understand what these men planned to do to the wagon trains. He was terrified quite enough about what these men might be planning to do to him.
‘Please, sir, d-don’t take my life.’
The rider puckered up his face into careful thought. ‘I must indicate to you that a soldier’s life isn’t really worth all that much. It’s only these bull-whackers here who can expect to get off easy.’
The night was cold, but the soldier’s jaws fairly clattered.
‘Your orders, then, soldier’? demanded the rider.
‘The c-commander s-says that M-M-M’?
‘Y-yes sir. The M-M-M’?
‘Are in the f-f-field and the w-w-wagoneers must n-not go to s-s-s’?
‘Yes sir. B-but they must k-k-keep n-night guard on their t-t-t’?
‘Trains,’ suggested the rider.
‘F-f-f-four c-c-companies of c-c-c-c-c-c-cavalry and t-two p-pieces of ar-ar-ar’?
The rider drew his pistol and cocked it.
”tillery, sir! Coming in the morning, sir.’
‘Thank you, soldier.’ His manner softened. ‘Now I have a message for you to take back to your commander.’
‘Yes sir!’ The soldier gripped his mule’s reins tightly, preparing for a grateful and speedy exit with the message.
The rider reached out and took the soldier by the elbow and gave it a gentle yank. He slid off his mule like an empty sack. ‘To be delivered after we’ve completed our business.’ He called into the dark, ‘Big James!’ A huge man appeared. ‘O’Hara, guard this man. If he moves, shoot him.’ Then he turned to the soldier again. ‘You can tell your commander that Major Lot Smith, of the Nauvoo Legion, leaves his compliments with the army, but is doing his talking tonight with torches.’
The soldier looked confused.
The rider, now called Major Smith, ignored him, and ordered the twenty or so men that Jeroboam could see by the firelight to spread themselves up and down the train. The wagoneers, about eighty of them by now, watched, glancing nervously into the dark at their invisible guards. Smith and Dawson walked off to the lead wagon of the second train and shook it. The wagonmaster, whom Jeroboam only knew as ‘Bill,’ stuck his head out through the canvas. ‘Why’re ya gettin’ me up so early,’ he grumbled. He looked like the kind of man who could sleep through a volcanic eruption.’Dawson hollered, ‘Man, get up or you’ll be burned to a cinder in five minutes!’ Bill rolled out quite briskly.
Said Smith, ‘Mr. Dawson, I am much in need of overcoats for my boys. The season is getting late and cold. I wonder, too, if you have much gunpowder on board. It would be well to remove it. You see, when I fire the wagons I’m thinking it would be convenient to take you with me.’
Having little desire to be blown to pieces while torching the trains, Dawson scrambled from wagon to wagon unloading the powder, while some of Smith’s men pulled out overcoats where they could find them.
At this point, an Indian came up and saw what was going on. He asked for some presents.
Smith turned away from the business of frustrating the United States Army as carelessly as a shopkeeper turning away from dusting a display of reading glasses. He said to the Indian, ‘Tell me your order, and I’ll fill it.’
‘Flour. Soap. Two wagon covers for a lodge,’ answered the Indian.
‘Done!’ and a moment later the happy Indian rode away with his prizes.
Dawson was terrified that maybe he’d missed some gunpowder somewhere in the wagons, so Smith mercifully left him behind and rode the length of the trains, applying a torch to each wagon. Some wagons burned canvas-first, layering bright yellow flames into the sky. Others were filled with goods more flammable than canvas, and burned from the inside out, looking like huge orange lanterns until the canvas popped into full flame.’
It was just too much excitement for Big James. Leaving his prisoner, who was too scared to move anyway, he grabbed a flaming branch from the fire and swung himself up onto a big mule, shouting ‘By St. Patrick, ain’t it beautiful! I never saw anything go better in all my life!’
As he raced toward the wagon nearest Jeroboam’s hiding place, Jeroboam panicked and scurried off into the dark. He was too scared to notice that he was running right into the guns of Smith’s forces who were lined up in the dark, guarding the wagoneers. Behind him, he heard the Mormons bid everyone a pleasant good night and in a flash they shot past, leaving fifty-two wagons blazing like fury.’
But there had been no guns in the dark. Only the two hundred or so imagined by the frightened wagoneers. Jeroboam looked at the rows of flaming wagons, the neat stacks of rifles, the eighty teamsters standing still as posts for fear of the Mormons, and the one soldier, who had fainted. The destruction of the trains had been the work of twenty men.
Thanks, Brother Smith.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
2007 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.