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S. Dilworth Young, speaking at the Religious Educators Symposium in 1977, referred to the following incident in the life of Brigham Young:
John Young! took a load of sugar they had made to Painted Post to exchange for pork and beans, leaving Brigham, age fourteen, and Lorenzo Dow, age eight to clear land. Their food was a pound or so of sugar. Here in late afternoon they heard a robin sing and seeing it perched . . . Brigham told Lorenzo to watch it while he ran in a roundabout way for the gun, an old smooth-bore flintlock with a half- inch bore and a kick like a mule . . .The bird was still there. Brigham steadied the gun and fired. When the smoke cleared and he had picked himself up from the kick, he found the bullet had neatly severed the birds head. By beating on the upturned flour barrel they managed to get half a cup of flour. That night they had bird-stew to augment the flour. (From a transcript of the address, given August 19, 1977, at Brigham Young University; p. I )
That paragraph taught me things about Brigham Young. Like Moses who learned how to make bricks without straw, Brigham, who one day would lead an exodus to another promised land, learned how to make robin soup. Knowing that may have made all the difference. The result of my pondering and research led to the following fictionalized account of Brigham Young and the Robin Soup.
The lid of the pine casket dropped shut with an awful finality, and the men bent to drive the nails. It was then that Brigham found his enduring sense of duty. Without Mother there would be a great shifting of responsibility within the family, and he discerned a new weight on his fourteen-year shoulders.
From his cheeks Brig wiped the tears, the few that were left after the weeks of her sickness and suffering. She was gone, and this was a time of sorrow laced with relief. If God was as good as Mother always said, then it was better for her to go. But it would be worse for those left behind.
Brig glanced down and took Dow’s hand, drawing a deep breath. An eight-year old needed a man beside him at a time like this. There would be more work, less joy, more hardship and less laughter. But he had learned well from her and from Pa. It was a man’s job to do what had to be done, and at a time like this, that meant picking himself up and going on. In that moment knew that he would.
He squeezed Dow’s hand, and the small hand squeezed back, accepting his offer of understanding. The child made no attempt to hide his tears. Both boys knew that Pa was sympathetic, but he was hurt worse than either of them by Abagail’s death, feeling not only the loss, but the responsibility for it. Her helping clear the timber and brush from unproductive farms, while bearing and raising eleven fine children was a burden he had laid on her. Now, at forty-nine, she was gone, succumbing after years of intermittent illness and unceasing toil, to the terror of tuberculosis.
Brigham could not remember a single word of complaint or regret. She had made it her business to share her husband’s work and his dreams and to wrap them both, and the offspring that followed, in music and softness.
The two boys watched the box lowered into the earth, and a dark thunder filled their ears as the older boys lifted their shovels and the dirt began to rain in upon the casket. Grimly, holding himself in, Brigham pulled his mind away from the sound of soil on wood and reflected that at least here there were fewer rocks. He’d heard the stories of his birthplace; lovely but rocky Whittingham. “Springtime country don’t get any more beautiful than that,” his father had said when he spoke of the past and of Vermont. “But a man can’t feed his family rocks. And they prevent the rooting of things you can eat.” It was hard to tell from the digging and hauling they had done, but his father assured him that New York had better soil and fewer rocks.
Dow let go his hand and put his arm around Brigham’s waist, leaning his head against Brig’s ribs, seeking warmth. Pa was next to them, but he was hard to go to for comfort. He loved, and deeply. But it showed in his toil and his expectations; not in his emotions.
With Mother, the gentle things had mattered, the things of the spirit. Her softness and sympathy balanced her husband’s sternness. While he taught the boys to cut trees and burn underbrush, to plow and harrow and hunt and plant, she taught the boys their letters, to love the Good Book, and to revere the Father and the Son. She sang in the Methodist choir, and loved the songs of God. The children sang them with her, and felt her faith.
Finally the hole was filled and the mound of black dirt crowned with a simple, homemade cross. No epitaph marked this frontier grave. Eleven stalwart, practical, splendid children were epitaph enough.
Brig was hardly prepared for his new duties, but when he took time to reflect, the new responsibilities seemed reasonable. His older sisters were married and gone; Louisa, the youngest girl, had gone to live with Fanny. It fell to Brigham to handle the household chores. He learned to make bread whenever there was flour, to wash dishes, to milk cows, to churn butter. He boasted later that he could beat most women at housekeeping. And maybe he could. His father and Dow soon learned that there was a quiet intensity about the boy, and a determination to do whatever had to be done, and to do it well.
Not long after the funeral, John Young took his unmarried boys into the wilderness of Tyrone. They built a cabin and started clearing. The family nearly starved that winter of 1815. To fend off the continual hunger, he sent his older boys off to look for work they could do in exchange for food.
The new land abounded in maple. Much of the hardwood covering the homestead was rich in sap. After bringing down a dozen or so specimens of one hundred twenty feet or more, John stopped cutting trees and started making sugar. Most trees gave a yield of three or four pounds, and some as much as six.
During the late winter months, Brigham and Lorenzo spent part of every working day searching the woods west of the creek for maple trees. Those large enough were tapped and left with a homemade bucket to catch the rich brown syrup. Their father supervised the heating and evaporating; preparing sugar for market
In February, the boys’ trips into the woods, still wearing nearly all the clothes they owned to fight the cold, became steadily less productive. They spent much more time looking that tapping. One day, when Dow spotted a tree that Brigham had missed, it was cause for a small celebration. He jumped and shouted, throwing handfuls of snow into the air, and teasing his big brother about losing his eyesight in his old age. By the last week of the month, Brigham told his father that there were no more maples to be tapped.
John brought in brush to fire for the final batch of syrup. When he was done, he called in his two sons for a council.
“Some things have got to be done if we’re going to make a go of it on this land, if we’re going to make it to harvest,” began John. “We’ve got to clear more land for spring planting. We’ve also got to lay in some supplies. Peter Hautson came by last week He says there is a good market for sugar at Painted Post.”
“Where’s that Pa?” Dow asked.
“South of here, two or three days. In Steuben County.” He reached over and tousled the boy’s hair. “We have a few hundred pounds of sugar we can trade for supplies there. But it needs to be done right away.”
Brigham anticipated what his father was about to ask, and felt a scrape of fear near his heart But he saw almost at once that this would have to be done, and he spoke as calmly as he could.
“Leave us to dear the land, Pa. We have the tools and you can leave one of the horses to help. We can cut some of the smaller trees and drag them over to the woodpile, or we can burn them. Reckon with the wagon you can make the trip to Painted Post by yourself?”
John smiled and felt a rush of love for this boy. A father ought not to leave a teen-ager alone in the wilderness to watch a child for an uncertain number of days, but there was a man inside Brigham–a steady, good, reliable man. The man wasn’t there every minute, but often enough to convince John that there was a destiny in his son, a purpose hidden in the hand of God. And often enough for John to know that Brigham could be trusted.
“I think perhaps for a week or so I can manage without you two, but it won’t be easy,” replied John. “Lorenzo Dow, do you think you and Brigham can get by here for a few days?”
“What we gonna eat?” Dow wanted to know. Food had been a problem all winter, and he waited for his father’s solution. John hesitated. The winter had held on tight through February. The ground was frozen, the game scarce. The flour barrel had been empty since the New Year. The venison was gone. Even the jerky was gone. John had only one thing to offer.
“Brigham, take a sap bucket or two and get some sugar. It won’t satisfy you much, but it will keep you alive till get back with some food that will stick to your ribs. You reckon that will do, Dow?”
The boy smiled and nodded. He liked sugar and he had confidence in Brigham.
“Well, then,” said their father, “let’s get moving. I want to be on the road with the first light tomorrow morning.”
A few minutes later, Brigham stood behind the cabin, a bucket in each hand, thinking. In the economy of Tyrone township, sugar was money, and he felt reluctant to take any. Every pound of supplies from Painted Post would be precious. He thought he could fend for Dow and himself, and he believed the Good Lord would help them if they were prayerful and faithful.
As a hedge against hunger, however, he took a pound or so of the rich brown lumps and placed it in the cabin. Then he found his father and told him that they had enough to see them through his absence. Then they loaded the wagon together.
As John climbed onto the seat of the wagon the next morning, he spoke quietly to Brigham. “Keep the gun and powder ready, son. You probably won’t need it for protection, but it might get you some meat. Either way, have it at hand. You hear me?”
Brigham Young stood in the road and watched the wagon out of sight. Then he turned to stare back through the trees to where his little brother still slept, and he felt the weight of duty as never before in his young life. He went to the cabin and built up the fire, warming water to be mixed with sugar for a breakfast drink. For today at least, there was nothing else.
He and Dow fought the underbrush and timber all that day. Brigham scanned the country every minute, a prayer in his heart, looking for an unwary buck or doe, a rabbit, anything. The old Revolutionary War flintlock was next to the door, waiting. But when the day ended, all they had to eat was sugar, and for Dow, love for the sweet taste was ending rapidly. “This ain’t gonna be much fun, is it Brig?” he said, sucking a lump of sugar.
“No, Dow, not much fun. But we’ll get by.” Brig didn’t eat supper that night. He was already regretting his decision to keep so little of the sugar. Five
days went by without a sign of game. Every morning Brigham checked the gun and primed it, but it sat silent by the doorway. The fifth morning Dow drank down the last cup of warm, sweetened water. He knew the sugar was gone and that Pa might still be days away. “Brig, what we gonna do?” For the first time, he was afraid.
Brigham came around the table and put his arm around Dow. “Dow, we’re going to clear land and burn brush and, somehow, find food.” They spent a few minutes with the Bible that morning. Brigham found the story of the net full of fishes and read it to Dow. “The Lord knows where the food is. And he knows where we are. Let’s go cut some trees.”
They worked the horse that day, tying a half-hitch around the end of the logs they had cut and dragging them away. They both felt pride in what they had accomplished. Nearly an acre more of land was clear of timber and brush, ready for plowing and planting when the ground thawed. Brigham toiled with a sense of anticipation, searching the woods, confidant of the Lord’s goodness.
The shadows were lengthening out toward sunset when his head snapped up and he scanned the surrounding area. He had heard the sound of an animal. He stood frozen, gesturing to Dow to hold still. Together they listened until the sound came again. Then they turned slowly to look into the branches of one of the great maples across the clearing. Dow saw it first
“Aw, Brig! It’s only a robin.”
“But it’s food, Dow. And we don’t have any. Watch it. Don’t frighten it. I’ll be back.” Brigham backed up into the trees and raced around the far side of the clearing to the cabin. He grabbed the flintlock and checked the load, tapping the butt on the floor to settle the powder. Then he hurried back through the trees to Dow’s side. The robin was still in the tree, chirping.
Brigham rested the barrel across a limb. He’d shot the gun before, a dozen or so times, but never at anything so small. He held his breath, offered a brief prayer, and squeezed the trigger. The explosion kicked into him like a mule and he went over backwards, dropping the gun and landing hard on his backside.
But he was up in an instant racing across the frozen ground, his eyes searching. The robin lay dead beneath the tree, its head severed cIeanly by the ball. Brigham picked it up and turned to show Dow.
Lorenzo looked at it, his eyes round and shining. “Brig,” he said. “Can I have a drumstick?”
They laughed and shouted as they walked back across the clearing to where the gun lay. The robin was only a single bird, but it had come to them when things were as bad as they could get. Now they needed to decide how to cook it.
As they came into the cabin, a breeze riffled the pages of the Bible still open on the table. Brigham glanced at the page as they sat down. His brow furrowed as he wrestled with the problem of making a meal out of a robin. Suddenly his eyes flashed back to the book before him. He read aloud. “For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, the barrel of meal shall not waste…”
He raised his eyes and met Dow’s. Without a word, they rose and went to the back of the cabin. On the way, Brigham picked up a wooden bowl and a piece of kindling.
The flour barrel stood empty by the churn, as it had since their last loaf of bread in January. Brigham tipped it on its side and handed the stick to his brother. Dow looked at him a long moment and then began to beat the bottom and the sides, making the cabin echo with the noise. After a few moments Brigham carried the container across the room and shook out on the table a half a cup of flour.
Dow heated the water while his brother plucked and cleaned the robin. They stirred in the flour and the meat let it boil for a few minutes while they offered thanks, and then ate their robin soup.
The next afternoon, when John came into the clearing with a load of dry goods and salt pork, the boys were hard at work at the edge of the woods. The father was astounded at how much they had accomplished. When Dow saw his father, he raced down the path to the wagon and climbed up beside him.
John put his arm around Dow and felt his ribs. “Well, how did it go?”
“It was all right, Pa.”
John pushed the boy away and looked at him. “You get enough to eat?” Dow grinned and turned to look for Brigham, who had stopped bury the axe head deep into a log. Now he came striding across the clearing, wiping his hands on his breeches.
“We ran out of sugar yesterday,” Dow said, “but we ate anyway. Brig made robin soup.”
“Robin soup?” John’s eyes followed the stride of the fourteen-year-old. He seemed composed, sturdy, able. John stepped down and took Brigham’s hand.
“Welcome back, Pa. You need some help unloading?”
“Surely would be appreciated, Brigham.”
John leaned against the wagon box a moment, resting his weight on his arms, and watched Brigham shoulder a sack of beans and turn toward the cabin.
“Brigham . . .”
The young man turned to look at his father.
“How do you make robin soup?”
Brigham’s teeth flashed a radiant smile and he laughed out loud. “It’s easy. Pa. You only need three things: faith in God, flour from an empty barrel, and one robin.”