My Uncle Chadwick was sheriff of Aspen County, and his office was in Horse Creek. That was the name of the town I lived in—if you can call five clapboard buildings a town! Actually, I lived a half mile from Horse Creek. Since my father’s barn was bigger than any building around—including Olaf Gunnar’s boarding house—folks liked to say it was part of Horse Creek so the town would seem bigger. I didn’t really care how big it was as long as it had Furgason’s Mercantile Store and the sheriff’s office.
It was summertime, and as soon as I got my chores done, I just naturally seemed to head for Mr. Furgason’s store where there were candy sticks and jelly beans for only a penny. He had a newfangled crank-type telephone on his back wall, and he let me use it to talk to Penelope Brewster, the operator, if I stocked a shelf for him or swept the floor or maybe swatted a pesky fly or two. Whether I went to Mr. Furgason’s or not, I always went to see Uncle Chadwick. Most of the other kids in Horse Creek, like Mosiah Twiggs, Amy Driscoll, and Latimer Page, went too.
Whenever Uncle Chadwick wasn’t chasing down a horse thief or helping Widow Farley put up a barn or mend a fence, he was usually in his office. He’d be fiddling with some papers, just waiting for us to come busting in—as we always did—to ask him to tell us a story.
We’d sit on a bench under the gun rack and wait anxiously for my uncle to do what he always did: He’d step to the window, smile at us out of the corner of his eye, pull on a suspender with one hand, and scratch his chin through his trim dark gray beard with the other. Then he’d sit down and lean back in his chair with his feet on his desk and spin us a yarn. Sometimes the tale would be about the Dixon Stage robbery or the midnight rider from Hooter Flat or the hang-tree ghost. Sometimes my uncle would tell about when Porter Rockwell was a marshal.
Well, one day when we’d piled into Uncle Chadwick’s office, he wasn’t there. What was there was his big Colt dragoon revolver, lying on his desk in a patch of windowlight. It was a handsome piece, full of mystery. Uncle Chadwick had used that very gun to shoot a huge bush pig that had come snorting into Horse Creek one day. The pig was foaming at the mouth and chasing Cylus Thombson’s girl who’d been playing marbles in the street. All it had taken was one shot from the Colt dragoon, and that prairie hog was laid out flatter than the road through town!
Amy touched my uncle’s gun first. It had a pearl handle that glinted in the light. Then Mosiah, Latimer, and I argued over who was going to hold it first. We were tugging and pulling at it, and I said that since it belonged to my uncle, I, by rights, should hold it first.
That’s when Uncle Chadwick stepped into the room. He’d been taking a nap back in one of the jail cells. He didn’t smile. He just kind of went white and looked at us.
Straightway Uncle Chadwick snatched the gun from us, sagged back against his desk, and pushed the big beads of sweat off his forehead. Then he looked at the gun, shook his head, and mumbled, “I cleaned and reloaded this thing just an hour ago. More my fault than yours, leaving it around to tempt you.”
Uncle Chadwick crossed to where a gun belt hung on the gun rack and slid the big pistol into its holster. “Seems like the older I get, the more careless I get,” he went on. He walked back to where we stood and drew us about him. “And any kind of gun,” he stressed with firm gentleness, “is one thing you can’t afford to be careless with. Some of the headstones in Fox Hill Cemetery are grim proof of that.”
He stepped over to the window. That meant we were going to have a story! Uncle Chadwick gestured for us to take a seat on the bench. We were glad he wasn’t still mad at us and that he still wanted to spin a tale. We traded happy, eager looks as Uncle Chadwick pulled on a suspender and scratched his beard.
“What’s it going to be today, Sheriff?” Mosiah asked. “The one about the hang-tree ghost?”
“Or maybe the midnight rider?” Amy prompted hopefully.
Uncle Chadwick turned from the window and sat down behind his desk. He propped his feet up and looked at us a long moment, his deep-set eyes shining with warm concern and quiet, tender affection. “It’s supposed to be a true story I don’t think you’ve ever heard before. It’s about one of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s sons, Joseph III. It happened in Nauvoo, in the early 1840s before the Prophet’s martyrdom at Carthage Jail in 1844.
“Joseph and some of the Brethren, including John Taylor and other apostles, were having a meeting at the Prophet’s home. A man by the name of Loren Walker—a member of the Church who lodged with the Prophet and his family for a time and who became a close and trusted friend—had on that occasion cleaned Joseph’s firearms and some of his clothes. He put the clothes into the wardrobe but, rather than disturb the Prophet during the meeting, put Joseph’s guns on the bed, thinking that Joseph would put them where they belonged later on.
“Now I want you children to know that the only reason the Prophet Joseph carried a gun was that the persecution he endured was sometimes so intense that he was forced to arm himself for his own safety.
“Anyway,” Uncle Chadwick continued, “the Prophet’s son Joseph went into that room to take a nap. The sound of the voices in the adjoining room kept him awake, and he found himself attracted to the pistols. Seeing that he was unobserved because of the bed’s canopy, young Joseph picked up one of the pistols. Now, he didn’t think for a minute that it was loaded or that he could possibly fire it, but the thought playfully passed through his mind that if it was loaded and he did fire it, he was sure he could hit a certain spot on the canopy.”
Suddenly Uncle Chadwick banged the flat of his hand on his desk, and we all jumped. “BANG! went the pistol,” he yelled.
“Well,” he went on, “the sound of the discharge alarmed the Prophet and the others who were holding council. Thinking the gunshot had come from outside the house and that someone was coming to attack the Prophet, they all dashed outside to look around. When they didn’t see anyone, they were puzzled. Then Brother Walker suddenly remembered where he’d left the pistols. Fearing the worst, they ran back into the house and into the bedroom.”
Uncle Chadwick pulled out a rumpled handkerchief, blew his nose, then stuffed the cloth carefully back into his back pocket. He took off his spectacles and held them up to the light as if to examine an imaginary smudge, all the while listening to the bench creak as we fidgeted. Finally, when he was sure we had fretted long enough about the worst that could have happened to young Joseph, he propped his eyeglasses back on his nose, gave us a sideways look, and continued: “Well, there lay young Joseph, as white as a just-scrubbed sheet. The pistol was at his side, and smoke was filling the canopy. He was unharmed, except that when the pistol had recoiled, it had fallen from his hand and struck him soundly on the head.
“At first there was some thought on the Prophet Joseph’s part to scold both Brother Walker, for having left the weapons there, and his son Joseph, for having played with them. But after the scare was over, there was general laughter—at the boy’s expense. The dust from the canopy, the damaged ceiling plaster that covered young Joseph, and the fast-swelling bump on his head were about all the ‘fun’ he had from the incident. However, it was a good lesson for everyone, and after that, firearms were carefully kept away from children.”
Mosiah, Amy, Latimer, and I looked sheepishly at each other, then at Uncle Chadwick’s big Colt dragoon. I guess we hadn’t thought about how really dangerous a gun can be, and we gazed at it with new respect.
Uncle Chadwick took his feet off his desk and grunted as he shifted in his chair. “Someday,” he said, “I’ll take you youngsters up to Potter’s Quarry. We’ll set up some cans, and I’ll let you shoot this old gun, if you like.”
“That would be great!” I exclaimed, and the others agreed. Then my uncle dug into his vest pocket, drew out a dime, and tossed it to us. He told us to treat ourselves to some sweets over at Fergason’s Store.
We hooted and hurried out, but I stuck my head back in the door and thanked my uncle for everything. He smiled. I smiled back, then ran to catch up with the others.