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Horseman rides trail, again, for friend

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An appreciation for feelings of helping others and for the commitment and sacrifices of early-day pioneers are among lessons learned from participation in the Sesquicentennial Mormon Trail Wagon Train.

These were among feelings expressed by Russ Leger, a Plattsmouth, Neb., horseman who was welcomed at a public gathering at This Is the Place State Park on Oct. 30 in Salt Lake City. The welcoming occurred after he rode the trail to create public awareness regarding the medical needs and expenses of an injured buddy, Larry Turbo Wayne Stewart.Brother Stewart, 25, a horseman on the 1997 commemorative trek, suffered a serious head injury Aug. 2 in a freak wagon-loading accident in Rock Springs, Wyo. The accident occurred after he had returned to his home in Milton, Iowa, and just days after the wagon train arrived in the Salt Lake Valley July 22.

Brother Stewart was taught the gospel on the wagon train and baptized by Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the First Quorum of the Seventy after he arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. The injured man still lies unconscious in a health care facility in Omaha, Neb., where he was transferred earlier this month from a center in Des Moines, Iowa.

It was reported Oct. 30 at the park that Brother Stewart seemed to understand clearly some questions that were asked him. In mid-November, however, he suffered a little medical relapse. His father, Wayne, reported that his son was doing slightly better Monday, Nov. 17.

The injured man's family says they greatly appreciate letters and other acts of kindnesses extended to them and their son. They said they are concerned that he get all the rest that he possibly can.

Soon after learning of Brother Stewart's accident in Wyoming, Mr. Leger took off again on the trek to raise funds to help pay for Brother Stewart's care. At Pioneer Trail State Park, the rider was greeted by cheers and praised during a rousing welcome by some of those who had participated in the wagon train trek.

Elder Pinnock, president of the North America Central Area, who baptized Brother Stewart in a pond at the park at the conclusion of the historic re-enactment and who ordained him a priest, and Elder Joe J. Christensen, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, were among those who gathered for the welcoming. Elder Christensen represented the Executive Committee of the Church's Sesquicentennial Committee

Riding a 9-year-old quarter horse that has become known as "Sarge, the Mormon horse," Mr. Leger was greeted with hugs and cheers as he alighted from the dark chestnut sorrel.

"One thing I have learned about you guys from Salt Lake is that handshakes just aren't enough," he said as he exchanged hugs with dozens of men, women and children. A number of people in a crowd of about 150 to 200 presented him with checks for Brother Stewart and with food, flowers and other gifts.

Mr. Leger, who is not a member of the Church but who has won the admiration and affection of members and non-members who participated on the wagon train, carried a leather-covered copy of the Book of Mormon in his horse's saddlebags.

The book was given to him by a friend when he took off Aug. 14 from Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the 1,200-mile trek to Utah. Mr. Leger presented the book to Elder Pinnock, asking him to keep it until "Larry [Brother Stewart] comes back to Salt Lake to pick it up."

Mr. Leger, who was wearing pioneer/Western-cut clothing with a red neckerchief, chaps, spurs, hat and gloves, said riding alone and in all kinds of weather along the trail gave him a greater appreciation for the pioneers and the sacrifices they made.

He said he experienced greater feelings of appreciation for the pioneers as he rode day after day past monuments and other markers placed in their memory.

Asked how his fund-raising effort was going for Brother Stewart, he said he told people along the trek that "it isn't just about money. It's all about commitment and dedication."

At the public gathering at This Is the Place State Park, Elder Pinnock paid tribute to Mr. Leger as a "man of great integrity. We enjoyed being with him a year ago while crossing Iowa, and we enjoyed being with him this past summer as the pioneer re-enactment group traveled from Winter Quarters through Nebraska, Wyoming and into Utah. He was able to peer deeply into what was going on, perhaps, more effectively than some, because he understood this great initial migration that took place 150 years ago."

Elder Pinnock said that during a visit to the Salt Lake Temple that Brother Stewart had performed baptisms for the dead. Brother Stewart told Elder Pinnock and others: " `I am the happiest I've ever been.' " Continuing, he said that he had " `left to go on an adventure [the trek] and found God on the Mormon Trail.' "

In an interview via cell phone before reaching the Salt Lake Valley on his ride, Mr. Leger told the Deseret News that he had had a number of "good conversations" regarding the Church as he crossed the plains.

"When I get back to Nebraska I will be able to discuss the real reasons, the spiritual reasons, why the Latter-day Saints traveled across the plains. I think it was their personal relationship [with] Christ and God. It was a commitment to family and the right to express their religious feelings without interruption - to worship as they pleased. It has come to have greater meaning to me. When you ride the trail alone, day after day, you develop a deeper appreciation for what the pioneers experienced," Leger said.