A Hero to Follow: A Shot in the Night


Little Sarah Palmer ran to meet Joseph when she saw him walking across the clearing toward their home. Propped against his shoulder was a basket made of white oak splints. “Hello, Sarah,” he greeted. “Is your father home?”

“He’s over in the field with the boys. They went out after supper to work till the light is gone. Are you coming to help?” she asked eagerly.

“Not tonight. I’m just delivering this basket. But tell your father we’d be happy to come and help whenever he needs an extra hand. Outside work has been a bit scarce lately.”

“I know why. Pa says it’s because of your vision in the woods,” she stated frankly.

“I’m not surprised. Lately folks have been piling hate on my shoulders. They refuse to believe in visions or revelations in these days.”

Young as she was, Sarah caught the note of concern in Joseph’s voice. “I believe you, Joseph.”

“Not many folks will go along with you, I’m afraid.”

Sarah sighed and said, “You’re right, I reckon. Our preacher came to see Pa the other night. They talked about you and your vision. He was angry with Pa for having you over so much. He said, ‘I don’t like your family’s close friendship with that Smith boy.’”

Distress clouded Joseph’s blue eyes. He sat down on a stump by the Palmers’ log house.

“But Pa likes you anyway,” Sarah hurried to add. “He told the preacher you were the best help he’s ever found, that when you work with my brothers the work goes faster, and he gets full worth for the wages he pays.” She stopped to catch her breath.

“Most folks have turned against me.”

“Well, our family likes you, but …” There was a trace of sadness in her voice. “I’m afraid even Pa thinks you only had a dream. He told the preacher he couldn’t understand why there was such a fuss over the sweet dream of a pure-minded boy.”

With the heel of his boot, Joseph hammered at the gnarled root of the stump. Sarah sat down in front of him, using a clump of wild mustard as a cushion. “I know you saw God, Joseph.”

“Yes, I did, Sarah, as plain as I see you. But folks hate me for saying it, especially the ministers.” His voice was puzzled. “I can’t quite figure it. They used to seek me out and try to help me find the truth. Why, they were ready to take me right up the path to heaven. Then, when the heavens opened and I saw Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus—and even talked with Them—the ministers wanted no part of me. In fact, now they’ve turned against me.”

“I’d never do that, Joseph.”

His face softened. He took her by the hand in an effort to still her worry. “Don’t fret, Sarah. Things will work out. Come on.” Joseph pulled her to her feet. “Let’s take this basket to your mother. It’s getting dark. You need to be inside and I need to get back.”

As Joseph crossed the dooryard to his home a short time later, he was still thinking about his talk with little Sarah. How my life has changed, he pondered.

Suddenly a shot split the stillness, whistling right past him! Then another shot cut the air in front of his face, and he dashed for the house. Cold terror chilled Joseph through, for he knew the shots were meant for him.

Yanking on the latchstring, he pushed the door open with a bang. “Someone just tried to kill me!” he shouted. “The shots came so close I could feel them!”

His father dropped the metal lantern he was making and pulled Joseph away from the door. He was a man not given to showing his emotions, but now his eyes blazed with anger and his jaw was set. He ran out into the dooryard. There was no movement, no sound except for one of the cows bellowing over by the barn. He called to his boys. “Hyrum, search the barn and sheds. Alvin, you go around back. I’ll take the road.”

When Joseph made a move to follow, his father said, “No, son. You stay inside with the family.”

As the men of the family disappeared through the door, Catherine’s seven-year-old face puckered. “Why did they go out there? They might be killed!”

She began to cry hysterically. At the sight of her tears little Don Carlos also began to weep although he didn’t know why. Sophronia, now as tall as her mother, settled herself on a bench and gathered the little ones into her arms. Joseph locked the shutter while his mother bolted the door and pulled the latchstring inside.

Eight-year-old William drew close to his mother.

Outside, Hyrum crept toward the barn, as wary as a painter (cougar). Easing himself inside the door, he listened in the near darkness. The sheep were huddled in a corner with their noses up tilted toward him, bleating softly. Off in the hay, a setting hen lifted her head in nervous jerks. As Hyrum cautiously searched the barn and loft, the hen clucked her complaint. If a stranger had run in here to hide, he reasoned, the animals would have made a ruckus.

Alvin, whose search took him over to the well and down along the rock wall to the apple tree, had also failed to find the fugitive. Once he heard a sound like a pinecone dropping to the ground. When it came again and again, he remembered that a man could make the same sound if he put his foot down flat all at once. It was an Indian trick. But when Alvin followed the sounds, no one was there.

Joseph’s father was a gentle man, but his great, kindly heart was hammering against his chest in a strong, determined beat. His weathered hands were clenched into fists. If I could lay my hands on that scoundrel, I’d give proof to what folks say about me being one of the strongest men hereabouts, he thought.

By the time he had searched the woods and road in front of their cabin, the shadows had thickened into night. He found no one.

Looking further would be as useless as hunting thunder in a storm, he decided. If it were day, I’d search every tree and bush, every hill and hollow, until I found the would-be killer.

Joseph’s father turned and walked back to the house, his shoulders drooping with the weight of a new worry. He called to the boys, “Alvin, Hyrum, you’d best come in now. We’ll look again first thing in the morning. We just might find a clue.”

Next morning, about an hour before sunup, Joseph’s father and the boys were examining the area surrounding the dooryard for clues. As yet there had been nothing to help them discover who it was that had tried to shoot Joseph the night before.

Hyrum was the first to call out. “Hey, over here … under the wagon. The brush has been trampled.”

Joseph’s father hunched down to examine the underbrush, still flattened against the ground.

“He must have been lying here for some time just waiting for Joseph,” their father surmised.

Alvin was perplexed. “But why would anyone want to shoot him?”

Inside, Joseph’s mother heard their discussion as she raked the hot coals from under the ashes in the fireplace. Laying aside the poker, she hustled outside and over to the wagon. Her words echoed the question. “Yes, Alvin, that’s what I’ve been wondering. Joseph is a well-disposed boy who wouldn’t harm anyone.”

They turned to look at Joseph, almost as if they expected an answer.

Joseph shrugged and shook his head, bewildered.

It was the next morning before any further discoveries were made. Joseph had gone to the barn to do the milking. Suddenly he appeared at the barn door. “Father, come quick!” he called. “Come see what I’ve found!”

His excited call brought immediate response from the family. His mother arrived first, carrying Don Carlos. The others came panting in from the field where they had been harvesting potatoes.

Joseph pointed to one of the cows. “Look … here on her neck … and there on her head.”

Carefully, his father examined the cow. “She’s been wounded somehow. There’s been some bleeding, but it’s not very recent.”

“I don’t know how it happened,” Joseph explained. “While I was milking her, she kept shaking her head as if to toss off a bothersome fly. She kept doing it—crazy like—so I looked her over. That’s when I found the wounds.”

After further examination his father took out a knife. “There’s something lodged in there,” he said. “Fetch some new ashes, Samuel. Alvin, put a rope over her back and draw it tightly under her flanks so she’ll lie down easily.”

Joseph’s father talked to the cow with gentle words as the boys tied her legs together. The he skillfully cut into the crusted wounds. Fresh red blood brightened each incision. Catherine gasped and sunk her head into the folds of her mother’s skirt. When Father Smith had finished, he showed the family two lead rifle balls.

“How in thunder? …” Alvin began, but Joseph interrupted. “I’ll wager they’re from the gun that was shot at me. I heard a cow by the barn when I was crossing the dooryard that night. If this was the cow, she’d have been opposite the wagon.”

His father nodded. “Must be. There’s no other way to explain it.”

As soon as Samuel returned with the ashes for a poultice, his father dressed the wounds so they wouldn’t fester. Then he untied the rope and the cow struggled to her feet.

When Father Smith turned from the cow he looked at Joseph, an expression of concern on his face. “I wonder, Joseph,” he said, “if we’ll ever find the coward who tried to kill you.”

(To be continued.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ron Crosby