A Hero to Follow: Backwoods Boy
January 1978

“A Hero to Follow: Backwoods Boy,” Friend, Jan. 1978, 17

A Hero to Follow:
Backwoods Boy

Winter had set in, and mounds of snow covered the hills and rounded the shapes of the trees. It was the kind of weather one would expect two days before Christmas in Sharon, Vermont.

About midnight the few farmhouses scattered among the hills were dark—except for the Smith’s where a lamp was still burning.

Even though it was Christmastime, a light that late at night was unusual. But something wonderful had happened on that twenty-third of December, 1805. A baby had been born.

The next day, a neighbor came to visit the Smiths. Alvin and Hyrum, the oldest of the children, saw him coming. They ran to meet him, shouting the news as they went, “We have a new baby!”

“It’s a boy! A boy!”

As they plowed through the snowdrifts surrounding the small frame home, they all had to laugh. Little sister Sophronia was watching from the window with her nose flattened against the glass. Father Smith opened the door to let them in and took the neighbor to see the baby, who was sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. “Well, what do you know,” he exclaimed, removing his hat, “a baby boy!”

“Yes,” Lucy said. “He’ll be named for his father. We’re going to call him Joseph.”

There weren’t any telephones, just neighbor folk to pass the word along. So when he left, the neighbor must have carried the news to the men and boys clustered around the stove at the village store. “Another boy for the Smiths,” he announced. “They can always use another hand on the farm,” a hand-warmer declared.

However, when Lucy stroked the soft baby hair, she imagined him not as a farmhand but as a leader and a mighty man. Then she smiled at her dreams. He looked like every other baby born to farm folk in the backwoods of Vermont. There was no reason to think he would be known outside the neighborhood.

Even in her wildest dreams Lucy could not have guessed that this small, new Joseph would run into hatred and yet would inspire such admiration that millions would follow him. And it would be said of him, “In all that he did he was manly and almost godlike.”

Yes, a baby had been born, and “the Lord had his eyes upon him.”

The baby grew and was strong and well. But when he was six, the Smith children became ill with typhus fever. Then a swelling in Joseph’s leg caused him so much pain that he could scarcely bear it. One day Joseph thought it was Dr. Stone, who was treating him, at the door until he heard Rebecca Perkins speak to his mother.

“I brought some honey bread, Lucy—new-baked.”

“Thank you, Rebecca.”

“It’ll help some, I reckon.”

Joseph knew it would help. His mother was bone tired from tending him and his brothers and sister, who slept only fitfully because of the fever. Sophronia was sick for ninety days, even came near dying.

“I understand young Joseph is still feeling poorly,” Joseph heard Mrs. Perkins say.

“Yes. He’s been real sick for some weeks. The typhus caused a fever sore in his shoulder. Dr. Stone lanced it, but the pain shot like lightning down his side and into his leg. He cut into it, clear to the bone, trying to relieve the infection. But it’s still so red and swollen.”

“We deemed it wise to call a council of surgeons to consult about the case,” Joseph heard his father explain. “We’re just waiting to hear.”

Waiting. So much waiting, Joseph thought. Everyone had done his best; he knew that. Even his big brother Hyrum had held Joseph’s leg, day and night, to help relieve the pain. But the pain persisted. Once Joseph cried out in desperation, “Oh, Father, how can I bear it?”

Now his father called to him, “The doctors are riding up, Joseph.”

Rebecca spoke a hasty wish-you-well as Lucy invited the doctors into a room apart. “Gentlemen, what can you do to save my boy’s leg?” she asked.

There was no answer for a moment, then one of the surgeons said as kindly as he could, “We can do nothing … his leg is incurable. Amputation is absolutely necessary in order to save his life.”

Lucy covered her mouth with her hands as if to silence the cry that rose in her throat. “No! Not little Joseph!” Then she found herself thinking back to the time when the doctor said Sophronia couldn’t live. How he even stopped coming, death was so close. They prayed for a miracle … and it happened, just like that. With her head in her hands, Joseph’s mother prayed again—for another miracle.

When she raised her head she said quietly, “Dr. Stone, can you not make another trial? You must not take off his leg until you try once more.”

After consultation the doctors decided to try to remove the infected bone. Lucy went for some clean homespun sheets to fold under the infected leg while the doctors told Joseph what they were going to do. And because there were no anesthetics to deaden pain, they called to his mother, “Bring some cords. We can tie him down to the bedstead. And bring a little brandy or wine; the pain will be almost unbearable.”

But Joseph protested. He didn’t want any liquor; neither would he be tied down.

“Mother, I want you to leave the room. Father can stand it, but you have carried me so much and watched over me so long that you are almost worn out.” Tears rimmed his eyes. “I’ll have Father sit on the bed and hold me in his arms. Then I’ll do what’s needed to have the bone taken out.”

One of the doctors objected. “The boy’s so young! He needs some kind of help to get through it!”

Joseph reached out for his father’s hand and pulled the big man down beside him on the bed. “The Lord will help me . … I’ll get through it.”

So the big, weathered farmer wrapped his arms around his little son and hugged him to his heart.

The operation began. It was long and excruciating with no medicine to deaden the pain, just his father to cling to. At one point Joseph’s mother heard his screams and came running back into the house.

“Oh, Mother, go back, go back. I don’t want you to come in. I’ll try to tough it out if you will go away,” he sobbed.

When the crude operation was over, Lucy stood hesitantly at the bedroom door, not daring to ask the question that trembled on her lips. Her husband, tenderly supporting his son’s shoulders, looked up and held out his other hand to her.

In a moment Lucy was across the room, that hand curving around her own as she knelt by young Joseph’s bed. How small and pale he looked. How still.

From the dark depths of his exhaustion, Joseph heard her coming, felt her touch—gentle but hesitant. He opened his eyes and his steady blue gaze swept the anxiety from his mother’s face.

Dr. Stone wiped the perspiration from his forehead. “It’s all right,” he said, nodding.

Young Joseph knew the Lord was with him. Their prayers had been answered. His leg would heal.

(To be continued.)

Illustrated by Ron Crosby