Saving Buddy Link
He knew he was getting drunk and he didn’t care. The liquor kept the pain away. “Another one, Sweeny!” He shouted.
“I think you’ve had enough, son,” Sweeny answered.
“I said another one!” He banged his hand on the counter several times. Sweeny looked at him and shook his head. “Come on!” He pulled some change out of his pocket and slammed it down on the bar. It was the last few coins he had left from his final pay. He picked up one of the coins as he stared at it, remembering the day they sent him away.
He rode back into the camp after the incident at the McCain Ranch. There were five of them, all lined up with their arms crossed and legs spread out in front of him as he climbed off his horse. “Now who’s the coward?” Dub asked.
Buddy stared at them. “He had a shotgun on me!”
The boys just laughed and shook their heads. “That’s not an answer!” Marty ran up to Billy. He got right in his face. “You couldn’t even shoot a coward! You were all talk! You say you’re rough and tough, but you aren’t.”
Dub threw some money at him. “There’s your pay. Compliments of the boss. Now get out of here!”
“No!” Buddy called as they walked away. “Wait! I can explain!” But they left.
He crawled around in the dirt looking for the coins. In the distance, he could hear the cowboys laughing and joking. They were laughing at him.
Buddy looked at Sweeny now. “I said another!”
“And I said leave!” Sweeny pointed at the door. “You’ve had enough, friend.” Buddy stared at the coins on the table. He stood and stuffed the coins in his pocket. Then he walked out, slamming the swinging door against the wall as hard as he could. He looked toward the café. The remaining coins he had would buy him one final meal anyhow. Then he’d have to be moving on to find a job in some other town. He needed that rough attitude back, but he didn’t know if he had it in him anymore.
Buddy sat at the table and drew a hand to his forehead as he leaned down onto the table. How was he ever going to get through if he could no longer be rough? It would be just like before he left home.
The waiter came over and asked him what he wanted to eat. Billy stared at the menu. He longed for a steak and potatoes, but he didn’t have the money. A bowl of soup would have to do for now. But suddenly, as he put his head back down on his hand in defeat, he heard someone. “Get him a steak and potatoes. And bring me the same.”
Buddy looked up. Standing before him was George Collins. Buddy narrowed his eyes at him as George sat down at the table, but George just continued staring at him. “Hi there, Mr. Link.”
The tables were turned now and Buddy knew it. George had won that battle weeks ago when he held that shotgun on him. Buddy closed his eyes as he allowed a huge sigh to escape from deep inside him. “Go away!” He groaned. “Just go away!”
“I saw Sweeny out on the street a few minutes ago. He told me about your predicament.” Buddy looked up at George. He still at that friendly smile on his face.
“Just go away!” Buddy picked up his fork and banged it on the table. “Go away!”
“You know the beating you gave Mr. McCain? He was left with two fractured ribs. Mr. McCain’s a hard worker and Mark and I have had a heck of a time making him stay put. It would be easier to look for water at Dead Man’s Crossing then to keep that big man in bed! Well, yesterday Mr. McCain suddenly injured his ribs even more and the doctor’s confined him to bed for at least three more weeks – if he’ll stay there.”
Buddy listened to all of this. There was this sudden prick in his heart. He hadn’t felt it in a long time and he definitely didn’t want to feel it now! Buddy clinched his fist. “What do I care?”
“I have to go away now. I found a job that’s just right for me. But I can’t leave Mr. McCain alone. Mark…he’s great with his Pa, but he can’t run the entire ranch. Lucas needs help.”
Buddy suddenly looked up at George. “Are you trying to tell me I should go work for…McCain?” George nodded. “You have gone loco!”
Their food arrived and they ate in silence for several minutes. Buddy didn’t want George there. He was now stirring up feelings inside him that Buddy had been able to repress for so long, and he wasn’t prepared to allow them to surface now. “He has a lot of cattle. You would be responsible for herding them and such. Then there’s chopping wood. Mark can help you out when he’s not in school, but Mr. McCain has made it clear that school is Mark’s first priority.”
At that, Buddy’s head shot up. School…He suddenly grabbed his head and pressed the memory back down. He couldn’t think on that! He couldn’t-
“But if you think the work would be too much-“
Buddy suddenly stared at George. He narrowed his eyes. “When?” he suddenly asked. “When does he need me?”
Buddy popped the last bite in his mouth and stood up. He tossed a couple coins on the table. “Tomorrow morning,” he answered. “Be there early.”
George walked out the door. Buddy stared at his confident figure as he left. There was a change in George. He was no longer the cowering runt he had been before. Now he had a confidence…a strength from deep within. He picked up one of the coins George had tossed on the table. It was almost like transference of power. Buddy lost his the day George gained his.
Buddy stood and put his hat on. He’d have to find a place to sleep tonight. Then in the morning, he’d go. He’d show them that he could still be rough and tough Billy Link!
He knew as soon as he opened the door that George hadn’t told them exactly who the new hand would be. Mark’s eyes grew wide. Again, something from deep inside him tugged at him, but he suppressed it. He couldn’t let it come. Not ever!
He pushed passed Mark. He took his hat off and played with it nervously in his hands. “I want to tell you how sorry I am for the cracked ribs…Mr. McCain.” Billy cleared his throat. Where had that come from? Why was he apologizing to this sodbuster?
He watched Lucas shift in his chair. He groaned at the pain that escaped him. “Buddy Link,” he said. It was a little more then a whisper. Buddy stared into Lucas’s eyes. Lucas stared into his. Neither man spoke another word as they continued their stare. Mark suddenly rushed up to his Pa and put a protective arm around him. Buddy couldn’t stand seeing that. He quickly lowered his head and turned away.
He began pacing around the cabin nervously. “George saw me in town yesterday and told me you may need some help. I lost my job and could use the money if you are hiring.”
“Why should I help you, Buddy?” Lucas asked suddenly. Buddy heard the anger in his voice. “You’re the reason I’m in this chair instead of out there working my own land!”
“Yes, I know.” That’s all Buddy could say. He suddenly felt something strange enter his eyes. It was a wetness. He felt something leave the corner of his eye and he wiped it with his finger. He stared at his finger in horror, suddenly glad his back was turned to them. It was a tear! One of those hadn’t escaped his eyes in many years, and he wished it were a man coming at him instead of that stupid drop of moisture. He couldn’t punch it.
But Lucas had seen it. He saw the slump of Buddy’s shoulders and his hand go to his eye. He wrinkled up his brow and looked at Mark. Mark nodded slightly as a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Alright,” Lucas finally agreed. “If George wants you, then you deserve that chance. But there’s going to be some rules around here, boy. You will sleep in the barn. You will be responsible for all the daily chores, any repairs that need done, and taking care of my cattle and the rest of the stock. Mark has his chores, and I’ll let him tell you the things he’s responsible for later. But if you raise one hand at a man either here or in town, you are gone. And I don’t mean gone from this ranch, but gone from the whole territory! I’ll personally see to it, you got me?”
Buddy nodded without turning around. “And you will show me the same respect all my other hired hands have shown me. That includes looking at me when I address you and yes sirring me!”
Buddy slowly turned around and looked at Lucas. “Ye-Yes sir, Mr. McCain.”
Lucas sighed. “Mark, show him where he’ll stay.”
Mark stood and turned to Buddy. “Go on to the barn. I’ll be there in a minute.” Buddy nodded and went out the door. But as he stood with his hand on the doorknob of the closed door, he could hear the conversation inside the house. “Pa, I’m not leaving until you lay down.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, son! I can sit up here in this chair!” Lucas retorted.
Mark shook his head. “The doc said you need to lay in bed, and bed’s where you are going Pa! I’ll keep an eye on Buddy and let you know if there’s any trouble.”
Buddy suddenly heard movement inside the house. Mark must have won the battle. Buddy suddenly felt another tear on his cheek. He hurried towards the barn. This time he didn’t wipe it away.
Buddy took another swing at the wood. Mark came out of the barn from feeding the horses and wiped his brow. “It’s time for lunch. We’ll have ham sandwiches.” Mark started for the house. Buddy turned and began chopping. “Mr. Link, I said-“
Buddy took another swing. “I’m not hungry, son. You go on in there and eat.”
It wasn’t two minutes later when he heard Mark from the doorway again. “Pa says you are to stop now and come in to eat.”
Buddy turned toward Mark then. He pointed a finger at him and said, “Look here, sonny! I told ya I’m not hungry!”
Mark nodded his head. He folded his arms and leaned against the post on the porch. “Yes sir, but when my Pa gives an order to do something, you best do it!”
“Listen here, Mark. I don’t take orders-“ He froze. Lucas was suddenly standing behind Mark. He held his side in pain.
Mark turned and started to say something. “Get inside, Mark.” He hesitated. “Go on.”
Mark did so and closed the door. “You are expected to sit with us at meal time. I know it may not be the way things have been in places you’ve been, but that’s how we do things here. If you aren’t hungry, don’t eat. But I want you to earn your keep, and if you eat you work better.”
Buddy knew he had no choice. He did as told. He didn’t realize how hungry he was until he started eating. Mark and Lucas watched him as he quickly ate two big sandwiches. “Mark, you do the cooking?” Buddy asked.
Mark nodded. “I have to while Pa’s down.” He turned and looked at his Pa sitting in the chair. “He don’t care much for my cooking, but it’s the best we can do. Miss Hattie brings us food sometimes too since Pa’s been down.”
“So, your Pa usually does the cooking?” Billy swallowed as he stared into his cup.
“We both prefer it that way. Pa’s a pretty good cook,” Mark answered.
Buddy again stared into the cup. He hardly heard what had been said. He suddenly jumped up from the table. “I best get back to work.”
He went to the door and opened it. “After I finish the wood I’ll go check the cattle.” He stepped out onto the porch and closed the door. But a second later, he opened the door back up. “Um…Mark, if you have some steaks, I’ll cook them up tonight. You just get some vegetables ready for me and I’ll cook supper.”
Lucas and Mark stared at each other then at the closed door.
Buddy stuck to his promise. Mark closed his eyes as he savored each bite of the delicious meal. “Where-“ Mark swallowed. “Where did you learn to cook like this?”
Buddy suddenly got a far away stare in his eyes. Lucas suddenly looked up from his leather chair and stared at him. “Buddy?”
“I had to learn to survive,” he answered. He was only half done, but he stood up and left.
Mark shook his head as he stared at the closed door. “I can’t figure him out, Pa.”
Lucas sighed. “Well son, he has a big battle going on inside right now. I think he’s had it pretty rough. He’s all mixed up right now.”
He was ten years old again. His Pa was coming toward him, the leather strap snapped in preparation. Buddy backed up all the way to the wall and grabbed onto a peg. “No, Pa! No!” He screamed. But there would be no mercy this time either.
“I’ll teach ya!” His Pa screamed as he lifted the strap over his head. “I’ll teach ya good, boy!” Buddy screamed out in pain as the strap came down on his bare back. “You don’t never go to thet school again, boy! Never!” Again, he brought the leather down on his back.
Buddy screamed from the pain. He counted the swats until they got to ten. Then his father stopped and took a swig off the bottle that was now back in his hand. His back stung, and he could feel the blood oozing out of the cuts. The old one’s hadn’t even healed yet, and he already had new ones to deal with. Buddy allowed the tears to run down his cheeks.
Suddenly, he felt the sting as his father’s hand landed on his face with a hard smack. He smacked him twice. “And don’t ya cry like a baby!”
Suddenly, he ran to his room and closed the door. Then he wrapped a blanket around his bare body and hovered in a corner, shaking all over. He heard his father screaming at his mother in the other room. She began screaming. Buddy closed his eyes and imagined the day he could be the one in control.
Suddenly, Buddy startled. He opened his eyes and looked in the darkness of the barn. Sweat had broken out on his face and he sat up in bed, gasping for air. He had been able to suppress that memory for years, but it suddenly came back violent and ugly. He had snuck off to school but his father had caught him.
His father…Buddy turned over and stared at the wall, demanding sleep to come back to him. But it wouldn’t come. He couldn’t get his mother’s face out of his mind. His father’s face terrified him every time he closed his eyes. And he would never forget staring into the casket waiting for his baby brother to move after his father had beaten him to death. That was the day – the day Buddy had vowed to be tough.
As soon as the sun came up Buddy jumped out of bed and began the morning chores. But when he brought the milk into the house, he smelled pancakes burning. He ran to the stove and gave Mark a push out of the way as he finished breakfast. They sat to eat and he started to reach for his pancakes. But Lucas cleared his throat and suggested Mark ask the blessing. When they started eating, Mark said, “Pa what would you want me to do after breakfast?”
“Get ready for church,” Lucas answered.
“Oh, but Pa, I-“
Buddy suddenly flinched, waiting for Mark to get a slap in the face. But it never came. Mark had just stopped arguing suddenly. “Buddy, I bet Mark would love your company.”
“No,” Buddy answered. “I have work to do around here.”
“Not on Sunday morning you don’t!” Lucas suddenly declared. “Even God rested one day. After lunch I have a few things I want you to do. But until then, you will relax.”
Buddy closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his temples. It was almost like being there all over again – in that bedroom the one day he dared to mention that word.
Buddy flinched as he threw his arms up over his head to block the punches his father was delivering. But they made their mark. His arms ached from being punched so much. His father kept punching him over and over. “Don’t you ever say that word in my house, boy! The next time you mention God, I’ll kill ya!”
Buddy begged his father to stop. He wasn’t sure he was going to survive this beating. But after a few more punches, Buddy stopped fighting and laid resigned on his bed as his father gave him one final smack in the face. Then he heard the door slam.
He waited for his mother to come but she never did. He cried into his pillow as his face began swelling. By the time he got the courage to look in the mirror his face was swollen up and covered in bruises. He hid in his room for five days, waiting for the bruises to fade and the swelling to go down.
That was the day he learned to hate God. He knew that if he could hate God, he could hate anyone.
“Buddy?” Lucas was calling.
Buddy suddenly stood up. “Stop it! Leave me alone!” he screamed. He pointed a finger right in Lucas’s face. “Don’t you dare mention God’s name in my presence again! Don’t you dare!” He suddenly noticed the fear on Mark’s face and he felt a bit of satisfaction inside him. Kids oughta be disappointed – it toughens them up. But as he kept staring at Mark’s face, something else entered his heart. He threw a hand to his head and closed his eyes as he tried to press that feeling down.
It was getting harder to do.
He suddenly stood from the table. “Don’t either of you ever mention anything abut God or church to me! Ever! He never did me no favors! He wasn’t there when my Pa-“ He stopped. Then he rushed out the door and toward the barn.
Lucas closed his eyes in frustration. This man had been hurt something awful as a child, it was plain to see. He was reverting back to his childhood now. Things he had covered for years with his rough and tough attitude were now coming out from that trunk in his heart. George had held that key, and once he unlocked that trunk, the lock was broken and could no longer be used. He closed his eyes as he rubbed his sore ribs. He wanted to go after him but he couldn’t. Not today, but soon.
Buddy rode in from the range. He actually had a small smile on his face as he jumped off his horse. Working with the cattle all afternoon had been a refreshing thing. There were a few new calves that needed branded, and Buddy had told Lucas the day before that he would gather them up and brand them. He wiped the sweat from his brow. Good, honest sweat made him feel the happiest.
He walked into the house with some pork chops and went to the sink to begin preparing supper. He whistled as he worked. It was now Wednesday and the last three days or so had been filled with hard work. He had been too tired to do any thinking or even dream about the past. Lucas looked up from the bed where Buddy had insisted he lay after lunch. “You seen Mark?”
“No,” Buddy answered suddenly realizing it was close to 5 o’clock. “He didn’t come home?” He couldn’t mention aloud where he’d been. The entire subject was too painful for him.
“He should have been home an hour ago. I don’t know what’s keeping him.” Lucas sat up in the bed. “We may have to go look for him.”
Buddy turned and saw Lucas stand up unsteadily. He wanted to help him but he held back. He had really injured this man, but at the time it was all he could think to do. Suddenly, a horse whinnied and Mark rushed inside. “Mark, where have you been young man?”
Buddy stood at the counter and stared down at the vegetables in the sink. Now he’d see Lucas’s true colors – he would be just like his own father. They were all alike.
“Well, answer me boy!” Lucas ordered.
Mark lowered his head in shame. “I-I’m sorry, sir. I…I…” Mark stopped.
Lucas hobbled over to Mark and stood directly in front of him. “I’m waiting for an answer, boy!”
Buddy closed his eyes. He saw his father standing in front of him with the leather strap in his hand. “Where have you been all day Buddy? Ain’t done a lick of work all day!” Buddy had been too terrified to answer. He had gone to help a neighbor who was injured get his corn out of the garden. His mother had told him he could that morning. He never offered to help anyone again – not after that beating.
“Pa, I’m sorry,” Mark said. “I played kickball with some of the boys after school and-“ Mark stopped talking then.
“Didn’t I tell you this morning to come straight home today because I wanted you to help Buddy finish gathering up those calves?” Mark was silent. “Well, didn’t I?”
“Yes sir,” Mark answered. “I’m sorry. I forgot.”
Here it comes. Buddy grabbed the side of the sink as the images vividly came back into his mind. Whack…whack…whack…And Billy could hear his own screams each time the leather strap came down on his bare skin. He could feel his raw flesh begin to bleed. The pain was terrible! After it was over, he wrapped himself in a blanket again and hovered in the same corner, shaking from fear of his father. He fell asleep like that.
“Mark, you have responsibilities around here, boy! Rather I’m injured or not, it takes two of us to run this ranch and you’ve got to learn responsibility. Now, I know you are still a child, and I want you to have that childhood and play. But today, you were supposed to come home.” Buddy listened to Lucas’s calm voice as he talked to Mark. This was wrong. It was all wrong!
“Yes sir,” Mark answered.
“For the next week you will come straight home from school. I’ll prepare a list of extra chores for you to do each day.”
“What about Saturday?” Mark asked.
“What about Saturday?”
“Well, the circus in town…You said I could-“ Buddy looked toward them. Lucas held a stern look on his face and Mark bowed his head in disappointment. “Yes sir.”
“I think you should apologize to Buddy. He was counting on your help.” Lucas ordered then.
“I-I’m sorry, Mr. Link.” Buddy turned back to the sink. He threw down the potato he had in his hand.
He clinched his fist and closed his eyes. “This is wrong!” He suddenly screamed. “When someone does something wrong, you beat them! You beat them over and over and over until they can’t see straight anymore. Until they are shaking with so much fear that they have to hover in a dark corner somewhere, afraid the beating will start all over again!” Lucas and Mark were both staring at him. “Don’t you see? Don’t you-“
Buddy stopped and swallowed. He closed his eyes as he once again heard his cries, his screams as the leather strap came down on him, or as his father delivered punches to his face. He took his hand and rubbed his face with it. “I can’t! I can’t stand it anymore!”
Then he ran out the door.
Buddy washed his face the next morning, trying to wake himself up. He hadn’t slept all night because he was afraid of the nightmares returning. He was still seeing those flashes – his father’s face, his mother’s tearful sobbing, his father’s fists. He could hear the cursing that came from his father’s lips. Buddy took the towel and dried off his face. Then he reached for his shirt.
Suddenly he heard a gasp. He whirled around to find Mark standing there with the pail. His face had gone white as he simply stared at Buddy. He suddenly realized what the problem was. He had seen the scars on his back. “What’s the matter with you?” He suddenly snapped.
Mark swallowed and looked back towards the house. “Your-“ he started. Then he suddenly started backing away.
Buddy dropped the towel in his hand and ran to Mark. He roughly grabbed him by the arm and kneeled down in front of Mark. “Don’t tell him, Mark! Let this be our secret!”
Mark shook his head “I can’t. I can’t keep this from him.”
“It’s none of your business!” Buddy declared. “It’s nobody’s business! Do you hear me?”
Mark swallowed and ran from the barn. Buddy watched him run back inside the house. He closed his eyes and sighed. He didn’t want all his secrets to come out.
As it turned out, there was never anything else said about what Mark saw. Things went back to normal on the ranch. Buddy found himself laughing at Lucas and Mark’s jokes. He found himself looking forward to playing checkers with them in the evenings and working with Lucas and Mark on the ranch. Buddy stayed on the ranch after Lucas was better.
Then one day it happened. The day came when his world came crashing down. Lucas rode back from town after picking Mark up from school. Buddy was chopping the last of the wood for Mark to stack. Lucas strolled over to him and Buddy found himself smiling. He enjoyed his and Mark’s conversations. Lucas had been telling him a lot about ranching, and Buddy was actually giving serious thought to investing in a small ranch just outside of North Fork.
He had been with the McCain’s now for over a month. He felt comfortable here and knew he had been forgiven for the abuse he had caused earlier. “You have a letter,” Lucas said as he handed him an envelope.
Buddy shot his head up. “A…A letter?” He took the envelope out of Lucas’s hand and stared at the cover. Slowly, he laid down the ax as he stared at the writing on the outside of it. “Alex Link.”
He walked away as his heart was suddenly filled with so many different emotions. He walked into the barn and closed the door. Then he grabbed the blanket from his bed and wrapped it securely around himself as he suddenly sat in the corner of the barn and closed his eyes, just like he had done so many times as a little boy.
He crumpled the letter up in his hands, not even bothering to read it. “Why, Pa?” He cried angrily. “Why did you have to come back?”
The nightmare came back that night. It was more vivid and real then ever before. His father was hitting him over and over with the strap, laying it roughly on his back. The whole time he screamed at him: don’t mention God’s name, don’t ever go to school, don’t talk back, don’t do this, don’t do that…don’t…don’t…don’t…Buddy felt like he was there in the room.
He opened his eyes and suddenly saw a shadow standing over him. He threw his arms over his face and shouted, “No! Please, Pa! Please don’t hit me anymore!”
“Buddy, it’s me! It’s Lucas!”
Buddy suddenly threw his fist up, hitting Lucas smack in the jaw and knocking him to the ground. He suddenly opened his eyes, realizing what he had done. But he couldn’t move. He could only sit there and stare.
Lucas rubbed his jaw. Then he noticed shreds of paper laying on the floor of the barn. “What’s this?” He asked softly.
“Don’t talk to me like that!” Buddy screamed. “I just hit you!” He suddenly closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I…What are you doing here?”
Lucas stood up and folded his arms. “I was sitting out on the porch when I heard you screaming. I just came to see what was wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Buddy answered.
“Buddy,” Lucas said softly.
Buddy suddenly flung around and looked at Lucas in the dark. “I said nothing’s wrong! Now get out of here!”
Lucas walked to the barn door and started to leave. But he turned around. “Maybe if you allow us to, you can find that there is love waiting for you in this world – from Mark and I. Goodnight.”
Things were quite tense after that. Buddy was terrified, always looking over his shoulder, always worried that he would show up to take him away – beat him, maybe even kill him this time. It was just a matter of time.
Lucas wouldn’t allow him to carry his gun and holster anymore while he was on the ranch. He told Buddy that he was too anxious, and until he dealt with whatever was bothering him he’d never be calm enough to carry a gun.
Then one day, Buddy saw him coming. He was working on the horse stalls while Mark was washing laundry and Lucas was inside airing out the furniture. He knew where Lucas had hidden his gun and he quickly went in for it. By the time the rider came into the yard he was ready.
The man stopped his horse but didn’t climb down. He sat still, staring into Buddy’s eyes. “Buddy,” he said in a voice just a little louder then a whisper. “It’s been…15 years.”
Buddy stood perfectly still, but slowly moved his hand toward his holstered gun. “Just turn around and ride out! Let it be 15 more,” he stated through clinched teeth. “Let it be 30…40…50 more years! You scum! You aren’t worth wiping the manure off my boots on!”
The man, Alex, slowly got off his horse. “Buddy, I tried to explain it in my letter.”
Buddy suddenly drew his gun. He cocked it and stood in front of this man…his father. Tears suddenly filled Buddy’s eyes, but he fought them down. “I said leave!” Buddy screamed. “Go on! Get out of here!” Alex just stood in front of him. There was no revealing emotion on his face. “What’s the matter, can’t you hear me? Go!” Buddy screamed even louder as he waved his gun around.
“Buddy! Put the gun down.” Buddy heard Lucas cock his rifle behind him.
Buddy swallowed hard. “No! You stay out of this, Lucas. This is none of your business. It’s mine.”
Alex stepped forward. “Buddy. Buddy.” He held out his hand. “Didn’t you read my letter?”
“No!” Buddy screamed through clinched teeth. “I tore it up into little pieces! I don’t want to hear anything you have to say!” Buddy began shaking. “Do you hear me, Pa?” He shook the gun up and down. “Do you? I don’t want to hear it!”
Everyone stood still. “Buddy, put the gun down so we can talk this out,” Lucas tried.
“Pa, when I left home 15 years ago, I swore I would put a bullet right through your head the next time I saw you!” Suddenly tears popped into Buddy’s eyes. That made him mad. He couldn’t fight tears.
Alex frowned at him. It was a sad frown. “You’re crying, son.”
“Don’t call me son! And you ain’t gonna slap me this time!” Buddy wiped the tears from his cheek. Then he shook the gun at his father again. “I hate you,” he sneered at his Pa. “I hate you more every day! Every day when I see a father loving his son I hate you more. Every night when I wake up in sweat reliving your beatings I hate you more. Every day when I hear that school bell ring or watch Mark doing his homework I hate you more. Pa, there are a million things every day that make me hate you! You are scum…scum…and I despise you!”
Suddenly, Buddy took aim and got ready to shoot. “Alright, son.” Alex stood in front of him. He crossed his arms. “Shoot me. But before you do, remember one thing. If you gun me down, you’re no better then I am.”
“You killed my brother!” Buddy suddenly screamed as sweat broke out on his face. “And that night…that night I left you killed my mother!”
Alex only nodded. “I did.”
“You beat me over and over and over until I was numb! I have marks all over my back – big ugly scars from where you beat me! I can’t read or write because you wouldn’t let me go to school. I turned against God because of you!” Buddy suddenly lowered the gun and dropped to his knees. “I hate you!”
Lucas suddenly came forward and wrapped his hand around the barrel of the gun. “Give it to me, son.” But Buddy held tight to it. “Give it to me.” He began shaking. “Come on, that’s a boy.” Lucas finally managed to take the gun from him. He patted him on the back.
That opened up something in Buddy – something that had been closed for a long time. He suddenly stood and lunged at his father, punching him in the face over and over and over. “I hate you! I hate you!” He screamed these words over and over.
Lucas tackled him and held him down. Buddy finally looked up. Lucas released him when his eyes grew calmer. Buddy stood up and walked into the barn, closing the door behind him.
He sat down on the bed. The feelings came back. He didn’t want them to, but they all came back: the love he had for his family, the tears he wanted to cry, the anger and regret, the hopelessness.
He sat on his bed alone for a long time, just staring into the hay. He heard the door open and close, but he didn’t even bother to look up. He felt Lucas sit on the bed beside him and look at him.
Buddy swallowed. Then he sighed a deep sigh as he told Lucas his story.
“I…” Buddy swallowed as he spoke softly. “I don’t hate him.”
“I know.” Lucas laid a hand softly on Buddy’s back.
“Mark told you about the scars?”
Lucas nodded. “He did.”
“And yet you never said anything.” Buddy turned and stared at Lucas.
Lucas smiled. “They were none of my business. I told Mark the same thing.” Lucas saw the question in Buddy’s eyes. “I do care. I care enough to let you work your feelings out your own way.”
Buddy swallowed. “There’s…There’s a lot I don’t remember about my childhood. So much is blurred…numb…But I remember the beatings.” Buddy suddenly stopped as he closed his eyes and pushed a hand into his forehead. He sighed deeply. “Everyday he’d beat me. If he wasn’t punching me in the face, he was belting me on my bare back so hard and so often that the skin would break and I’d bleed. If he wasn’t doing that, he was slapping me or kicking me…something.”
“When did he start beating you?” Lucas suddenly asked.
Buddy suddenly looked at Lucas. He wrinkled his brow as he thought. He turned and stared at the wall. Then he closed his eyes as the memory came back. “I was six,” he whispered. He suddenly buried his face in his hands. I smelt this horrible smell on my father’s breath as he came home late one night after the funeral.”
“What funeral?” Lucas suddenly stopped him.
Buddy looked up. “M-my brother’s. He was three when he died.”
“How did he die?” Lucas suddenly asked as he raised his eyebrows at him and looked into his eyes. Buddy just stared at him. “How did he die?”
“My father…” Buddy swallowed. “He beat him to death.”
Lucas suddenly stood up and kneeled in front of Buddy. His fatherly instincts realized that he needed someone to talk up to him. He laid his hands on Buddy’s arms and looked into his eyes. “Who told you that, son?”
That made Buddy angry. “Wh-what do you mean who told me? Nobody had to tell me! He was covered in bruises! His little body-“ He stopped as he realized Lucas was looking at him strangely. “What?” He suddenly asked.
Lucas stood up. “Could it be possible that your brother died from an accident?”
“Lucas, my father is a monster! He beat my brother and killed him, then he started beating me.” Buddy suddenly stood up as the anger began boiling up in him again.
“Mmmm.” Lucas went to look out the barn door that was slightly ajar. “Could your brother have wondered away from your folks and fallen down a canyon?”
“N-“ Buddy suddenly stopped. “Are you saying you think my brother died of-“
Lucas suddenly held up three pieces of paper. They were from the letter he had ripped up. “How’d?” He started. Then he stopped. “You’re saying you believe him?”
“No.” Lucas walked back over to Buddy and put his hands on his shoulders. “But is it possible?”
Buddy suddenly sat down and buried his face in his hands. “He beat me every single day after that, Lucas. Every single day! My own Pa was so…angry all the time! He didn’t want to hear about God. I couldn’t go to school and-“
Suddenly, his father was standing in the doorway. He had his hands folded in front of him. Buddy slowly lifted his face from his hands. Lucas turned. “I think you two should talk, Buddy. Please just listen to him.” Lucas walked out of the barn, leaving father and son alone.
Buddy turned from him. “I have nothing to say to you!” He screamed these words so loudly that it echoed in the rafters.
“I want to say some things to you. Then when I’m done I’ll leave and you’ll never have to see me again.” Alex took a step forward.
“You can say them from there,” Buddy suddenly stated. “I’m listening.”
Alex sighed. “Your mother-“
“Don’t talk about her!” Buddy suddenly shouted.
Alex continued as if Buddy had never spoken. “Your mother was the most wonderful lady in the world. The day I married her was the happiest day of my life. The other two happiest days were the days my sons were born – first you , then William.”
Buddy suddenly grabbed on to the post and wrapped his arm around it. “William.” He whispered the name. “William.”
“I was so happy with my family. I had a wife who loved me and took good care of us. I had two beautiful sons. There was no more a man could ask for.” Alex twirled his hat in his hand as he spoke the next words. “Then that day came – the day your brother died.”
“You mean the day you killed my brother!” Buddy screamed suddenly. “You beat him until he died!” Alex shook his head. Buddy ran toward him, punching him again. That was the only way he knew to deal with his anger.
Suddenly, Lucas came inside. He grabbed Buddy and pulled him off his father. Lucas grabbed Buddy by the arms and looked sternly into his eyes. “Listen to what he has to say.”
Buddy looked from Lucas to his father and back at Lucas. Then he turned back to the post to listen. “Stay, Lucas.”
Lucas looked toward Alex who simply nodded his head. Then Lucas sat down in a corner. “I did kill your brother, son,” Alex spoke softly. “But I didn’t beat him. That morning your mother had asked me to keep an eye on your brother. She went to town to pick up your school books. We were so excited you were starting school that next Monday.” Alex paced the barn as he spoke the next words. “I…have no excuse. I was working on chores in the barn and when I turned around, your brother was gone. We looked for him everywhere, but we couldn’t find him.”
Buddy suddenly slid down the post and sat on the floor. “I found him,” he whispered. “Oh, God help me, I found him!” Then he put his face in his hands and began sobbing. He remembered running to the edge of the bluff and looking down. He saw a crumpled body at the bottom. When he got there, the sight that met his eyes had been too horrifying.
“You had forgotten that by the next day. The…doc said it was a way of protecting your mind…” Alex stood still.
Lucas softly walked over to Buddy and placed a hand on his shoulder. He squeezed. Buddy just sat there as he remembered vividly that day. He saw the blood, the crumpled body, the fear in his dead brother’s open eyes. The sight was too horrifying for a six year old. “You didn’t do it,” Buddy whispered.
“I killed him though,” Alex stated. Suddenly, he punched the wall of the barn. “I killed him!”
Lucas looked up from where he sat, his hand still on Buddy’s shoulder as Buddy continued to sob at the memories. “You didn’t kill him!”
“I did!” Alex snapped angrily. “I killed him.” He began pacing again. “I died that day too. I walked from the grave and walked straight to the saloon. I got drunk and was angry – so angry! Then when I came home and saw that missing place at the table I-“ He stopped.
Buddy lifted his head. “You hit me that very night – slapped me across the face. With each passing day your hits got worse! Your slaps turned into punches. Then you began using the strap.”
“I was drunk for so many years, son.” Alex suddenly began sobbing. “I struck out at you and Eva because I couldn’t hit myself. It was me I hated.”
Suddenly Alex looked up at his father. “I couldn’t go to school, I couldn’t mention God, and I couldn’t even hardly breathe without you striking out at me! Pa, do you know how many times I wrapped that old brown blanket around myself and hovered in that dark corner – from the time I was 6 until I left home.”
“You were 14 when you walked out that door.” Alex shook his head. “After I killed your mother.”
There was silence once again in the barn as those words echoed and then died like so many other things in Alex’s life had died. “Why did you kill her?” Buddy’s voice was bitter and quiet. He sat back down on the floor, his energy drained.
“I was drunk as usual. I don’t remember exactly what happened. She suddenly laid at the bottom of the cellar steps. Her neck was broken.” Alex stood and walked over to Buddy. He raised his hand to touch Buddy’s face, but then pulled his hand back. Lucas bent down between them and put a hand on each shoulder as father and son stared into each other’s eyes. Buddy suddenly looked away.
“Son, I was drunk from the day I left the funeral until that day I saw your mother laying in the root cellar…dead. I dropped the bottle in my hand before I climbed down those steps, and I never picked it up again.” Buddy lifted his head as he stared into his father’s eyes. He saw the sincerity and the loss in those eyes. “I don’t remember those 8 years much. I have visions all the time and none of them are good. I hear myself yelling and see myself beating you and your mother. I see the fear in your eyes. I-“
Buddy suddenly lifted his hand to touch his father, but lowered it again as they looked at each other. “They wouldn’t arrest me because there was no proof. I wish there had been, then I could have been hung. Living with the truth…sober…has been worse then death. I’ve been in my own hell all these years, son.” Alex sighed as he suddenly looked away. “I sat there on the cellar floor with your mother’s head in my lap. For the first time in 8 years I cried. I cried for both your brother and you. Then you bent down. You had this look of pure anger on your face and you said good-bye. I heard the door close.”
Alex looked down on the floor of the barn. “Why-“ He started, but had to stop and clear his throat. “Why did you stop drinking?”
“There was this man who found me. He lifted me out of the cellar and sobered me up. Then he put me to work fixing up the farm and putting my life back together. We would stay up late into the night as I talked through my memories. Bitter nights, those were. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve cried more then a lot of women cry, but he never wavered. That’s what I needed. I even started back to church.”
Alex reached out his hand again. This time, he allowed it to rest on Buddy’s leg. “Buddy, I looked for you from that day on. You moved around a lot and I could never actually find you. That is until now. I’ve spent many, many hours on my knees asking God to forgive me. I know he has, but I still struggle with that. Now I’m asking for you to forgive me.”
Buddy stared at him. Then he pushed his father’s hand away and stood up. He ran to the other side of the barn, his back was turned away from his father. “I can’t ask again. I can’t.” Alex stood up and started toward Buddy. But Buddy cringed. “I’m…sorry for what I did to you.” Alex walked to the barn door and stopped. “Well, I promised you I’d leave after I said my peace, and I will. Good-bye son.”
Tears squeezed out of Buddy’s eyes and ran down his cheeks, but he didn’t turn around. Alex started out the door, but then stopped. “I…I love you, son.” Then he left.
Lucas looked at Buddy who just stood there with his head bowed. He was sobbing again. Lucas could see his shoulders shaking. He walked out to talk to Alex. Alex was already on his horse. “I’ll be leaving on the morning stage.” Then he rode out before Lucas could say another word.
Lucas walked back into the barn and came up to Buddy. He put a hand on his shoulder. “Buddy,” he whispered.
Buddy shook his head. “I can’t forgive him! I just can’t!” He screamed these words.
Lucas nodded and patted his back before he walked out of the barn. Buddy watched the barn door close. The he leaned his head against the wall. “I love you too, Pa,” he whispered.
Buddy sat at the McCain table the next morning eating breakfast. He hadn’t gotten any sleep last night. He had tossed and turned all night as he thought about the past and the truth as it was. It was Saturday morning and Lucas was in the barn doing the morning chores. “Are you going fishing today?”
“Can’t,” Mark answered. “I have to go work with the brush all day.”
“Oh?” Buddy asked as he carried his plate to the sink. “Why?”
Mark sighed. “I got in trouble at school yesterday. Pa had to go up to the school and talk to my teacher and…well…he was really mad. He yelled at me for awhile, and then he told me I had to stay at the ranch today and clean the brush.”
“You love your Pa, even when he punishes you,” Buddy stated.
“I bet he’s always fair and never wrong with his punishments.”
Mark shook his head. “No, he’s made mistakes. But he still loves me and I know he does. I reckon that every father loves his son no matter what.”
Buddy suddenly turned toward Mark. “And every son loves his father no matter what,” he suddenly stated.
He knew what he had to do. Buddy hurried to the barn and saddled a horse. Then he raced into town. The stage was due to leave at 9:00 sharp, and he’d be cutting it close to get there in time. He raced the horse, continually kicking her in the side to get her to town. Buddy galloped past the church and hurried into town. He stopped his horse and climbed down as he raced toward the stage, but it pulled out at the last minute.
Buddy took off his hat and slapped it on his leg in frustration. He’d been too late. He sighed and turned to leave, but then he saw his father sitting on the bench in front of the depot. As soon as he saw Buddy he stood. Buddy took a couple steps forward. Father and son stood still looking at each other.
Alex slowly walked down the steps and Buddy took two more steps forward. “I thought you had left,” Buddy said.
“I hoped you had come,” Alex stated.
Buddy lowered his head. “There’s…” He cleared his throat. “There’s a lot of muck to clean out between us before we can go forward.”
“And I can’t forgive you for what you did. Not yet anyway. May not ever.” Buddy took another step forward.
Alex nodded again. “I understand.”
“But I have to tell you something…I….I love you…Pa.” Buddy stood right in front of him. They didn’t touch but just looked into each other’s eyes. “I didn’t realize it until yesterday, but I never stopped loving you. I just managed to forget that I did.”
Alex smiled suddenly. “If it’s alright, I’d like to stay in North Fork for awhile and work on…cleaning that muck.”
“I’d like that. I’m planning on making my first payment on a small ranch here. Perhaps you could work there with me.” Buddy lifted his hand and laid it on Alex’s shoulder.
Alex nodded. “I’d like that, son. But I have one request.” Buddy looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Say you’ll go to church with me on Sundays.”
Buddy smiled. “I’d love that, Pa. I really would.”
Alex laid a hand on Buddy’s shoulder as they started down the street together.
*A special thanks goes to Michelle Palmer for her help in revising these episodes.
around The McCain Ranch