Pa and I had been working all day long that day. We were both sweating. Pa had stripped his shirt off long ago, and now I was just beginning to. It wasn’t hot outside, but we sure did work up a sweat! We had been working since sunup. First, we had rode our entire range checking on cattle, trying to get an idea of how many we had now. Then we worked together with chopping and stacking wood and building a bigger and stronger pig pen.
Around mid-afternoon, a rider came across the land. Pa reached for his shirt and put it on as I started walking beside him. “Keep working, son. I’ll be right back.”
I did as told. Pa wanted all the wood chopped and stacked by night fall. I still had the barn to clean out today as well. I looked up as I gave the log a hard smack with the axe. It was Micah. I waved at him and smiled as he and Pa began walking toward the barn.
Pa returned to the work about fifteen minutes later as Micah rode back towards town. Pa shook his head in exasperation. “What’s the matter?”
Pa took the ax from me and started chopping. “I have so much…” Pa’s voice died and he turned and smiled at me. “We…” I smiled then. “-have so much work to do this weekend, and Micah has to go out of town!” Pa shook his head.
“Aint’ there someone else in town?” I asked.
Pa laughed. “Everyone’s gone. Even Milly left yesterday to attend some big shin dig in the next town.” Pa took another hard whack at the wood. “Besides Micah, Nils, Eddie, and Henry Waller are the only souls in town.”
“That where Micah's going?” I asked. “To that shin dig?”
Pa took another hard whack at the wood. “He better not be!” Pa declared. He stood up and wiped the sweat off his brow. “If I ever found out that’s where he really went, I’d trim a tree with him!”
Oh.” I picked up some of the wood and stacked it as I shook my head. “Gee Pa, remind me to stay on your good side!”
Pa went back to chopping. “Sorry, boy, but there’s so much work! I sure hope Henry’s done with my rifle. I’d hate to go without it.”
“Well Pa,” I said as I picked up two more big pieces of wood. “Why don’t you go on and get ready? I’ll finish the chopping then get started on the barn.” I shook my head. “We sure do got a lot of work to do out here, but I reckon I can get it done by the time you get home tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Pa straightened up. “Nice…try, son.”
“Oh, but Pa!” I started.
“We’ll have to go as soon as this wood is done. Micah wants to leave by supper. He’s already checked with Mr. Waller, and you’re welcome to stay at his house tonight. Micah just has to deliver a prisoner to the next town, so he won’t be gone too long tomorrow.”
“Pa?” Pa grunted as he swung the ax again. “When will I be old enough?”
“Look son, I’ve been over and over this with you. I-“
I rolled my eyes. “I know, I know…when I’m old enough, you’ll let me know!”
After the chore was done, we got cleaned up and rode into town. I asked Pa if I could go on over to the gunsmith’s. Pa nodded and patted my shoulder as he turned to go into Micah’s office. “Uh…Pa?” Pa turned. “I reckon I can be a gunsmith when I grow up. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” Pa asked. He smiled. “Well son, if you’re destined to work with guns, I’d sleep better knowing you were fixing them instead of using them.”
I laughed as I hurried inside.
“Hi Mark!” Jeffrey greeted me. “Wanta learn about making rifles?”
So, for the next thirty minutes or so, Jeff taught me how to sand a rifle. Mr. Waller walked in looking really upset. I watched him mumble something under his breath. His hands were really shaky as he took one of the pills from a glass bottle and popped it in his mouth. “Something wrong, Pa?” Jeffrey asked.
“Huh?” Mr. Waller asked absentmindedly. “Oh, uh…no, son. Everything’s fine.” He saw me for the first time. “Oh well Mark! You’re doing a right fine job on that. Go ahead, son. Teach him the trade. Then you two can be partners someday.”
“No he can’t!” Jeffrey declared suddenly. Mr. Waller and I turned and stared at him. “I’m your partner, Pa. Remember?”
Mr. Waller gave a weak smile. “Oh yes, I remember, son.”
Jeffery started lecturing me on sanding the wood for the rifle when Pa walked in. He started to talk, but stopped when he saw me. Mr. Waller told us to go on home and eat our supper. We obeyed. As we walked toward the house, Jeffrey stopped and turned to look back toward the gunsmith office.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Something’s just…not right.
“Maybe he’s tired,” I tried to reassure him.
“Yeah,” Jeffrey said as we started walking again. “Maybe.”
Jeffrey warmed up our supper. His mother had gone to the celebration. No one would be back until late tomorrow. After we ate and got the dishes washed, Jeffrey covered a plate with a towel and announced he was going to take it into town for his Pa. I wanted to come with him. “No,” he smiled. “You stay here and uh…” Jeffrey looked around. He picked up a book and threw it to me. “Read this.”
“Roughing it?” I opened it. “Don’t mind if I do!”
I had read it once before, it being a Mark Twain book and all. But I discovered new things in it this time around. I was sitting in the chair reading it by the light of the lamp when Jeffrey suddenly walked back in. He had been crying.
I sat the book down and hurried over to him. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
Jeffrey shook his head and turned from me. “Nothing, Mark.”
“That’s a lie and you know it!” I turned Jeffrey around. “What’s wrong?” I asked again.
Jeffrey looked at me. “Pa told me not to tell you, but I-I have to tell you! I just hafta!”
“What?” I asked again. He had a petrified look on his face.
“Mark, I don’t want your Pa to die! Honest!”
“Die? What are you talking about?” I asked.
“A gang…three or four men…are gunning for your Pa. He’s to meet them out on the street at sun up.” Jeffrey threw his head in his hands.
“Gunning for…” Panic suddenly filled me. “Why, Jeffrey?” I asked then as hot tears began forming in my eyes. “Why?”
“I…I don’t know exactly. Something…something happened five years ago. Something horrible. The leader of this gang, he came back to finish a score. Your Pa’s the one who’s gonna fight him in the morning.” I turned to hurry out the door. Jeffrey put a hand on my arm. “Wait, there’s more.”
I stared at him as my eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Nobody will…not even my Pa will…stand up with your Pa in the morning.”
The room began spinning as the anger swirled inside my head. “Why not, Jeffrey? Why not?” I screamed.
“Th-th-their scared, I guess! I-I-I-I don’t know!”
“Pa against…against four gunslingers? That can’t happen! They’ll murder him!”
“They’re doing it! And nobody’s gonna stop it!”
“Well, I will!” I declared as I grabbed my hat. “I’ll be back!”
A million thoughts went through my head as I blindly ran into town. I thought about begging Pa not to go out there – to be a coward just this once. I thought about talking to the outlaws, explaining that Pa’s all I had and I couldn’t lose him. I even thought about going to the men in this town, demanding they tell me why they can’t stand up with my Pa in the morning.
As I ran into the town, I saw two men leaning against the post. They acted as if they didn’t have a care in the world. I stared at them for only a minute, then I ran inside.
I knew what I’d have to do.
I ran inside and up to my Pa. I started to tell him what I had decided to do. I had to keep my father from being shot down like an animal! But as I started to talk, Mr. Waller walked in. I stopped. What I had to say was private – not something I wanted to talk about in front of a man that wouldn’t stand up for my Pa. He started making excuses for why he couldn’t stand up for Pa.
Pa was angry and…and…I knew what he was and I didn’t blame him a bit. Anyone with eyes could see that one man against four gunfighters – Rifleman or not – was bad…very, very bad. He left, but Pa was frustrated. I could see that right off. I didn’t waste any time in telling Pa about my decision. As I spoke the words, there was desperation in my voice. “Pa, what I wanted to say before is that…I mean…I know I’m still a boy, but maybe I’m old enough to use a gun now.”
Pa didn’t even look at me. In a gruff voice he answered. “You’re not old enough, Mark.”
I wanted him to understand. I didn’t want him to die – and we all knew the truth about tomorrow. If Pa was going to die, I wanted to be at his side fighting for him – dying with him, if need be. “But Pa-“ But Pa didn’t even let me get the words out.
He suddenly turned and gave me a hard, angry look. “I said you’re not old enough to handle a gun!” Pa yelled. We looked at each other for a moment. I knew the truth. I saw it in Pa’s eyes. If he faced those men alone tomorrow, he would die. “Now get Jeffrey and go on out to the Waller house. And don’t come back to town until I send for you. You understand?” Pa’s voice held anger and fear, but I knew it wasn’t for me.
I didn’t want to leave him like this, but my father had a lot of pride and self-respect. He would never…ever…admit to anyone he was scared. But I knew he was. I was scared for him. I wanted to stay at his side and fight with him, but I loved my Pa. Sometimes when you love someone, you have to let him go. Pa hated this as much as I did and I knew that. Worse yet, he knew I knew. I couldn’t hurt him anymore. I had to let him do this even if it killed him. So as hard as it was for me, I answered a respectful “Yes sir,” and turned to leave.
“Mark.” Joy filled my heart. I wanted to speak to him one more time. I wanted to hear his loving voice. I turned and watched Pa stand from his chair and walk around the desk. “Commere, son.” He sat down on the edge of the desk. “Commere.” I walked toward him, suddenly needing to feel his touch and hear his soothing voice.
Pa gently put his arm around his shoulders and looked straight into my eyes as he spoke "Someday you'll be standing along side me, the two of us together, both of us men. But right now you've got something coming first. A growing up time."
"Growing up time?" I wasn’t sure what he meant.
He nodded as he continued speaking softly. "You see son, a man either has a time to look back on or he doesn't have it. It's a…well, it’s an awfully nice time. When you see an old man dozing in the sun and he looks like he's smiling, well, he's thinking back on his growing up time-thinking back and living it all over again. Mark, I want you to have that time. I want you to be a boy while you are a boy. I don't want you doing man things. It's really very important.” He turned me around to face him as he spoke these last words. Looking straight in my eyes, he continued. “And then when you're a lot older and you begin thinking back instead of ahead, well, you'll know what I mean." Pa put his hands on my shoulders as he drew my face in front of his.
There wasn’t very many times that I saw that look in his eyes. It was the same look – the very same one – that he gave me in the hotel. I can remember it like it was yesterday. Vernon’s uncle had just been killed by the saloon owners and Pa went to collect the money he had won in the turkey shoot for him before we left North Fork behind us. Pa had bent down and gotten eye-level with me and looked in my eyes. They shone silently with love and…and fear.
But it wasn’t a fear for himself – I don’t think Pa was afraid of dying. It was a fear for me. He didn’t want to leave me. That’s the look I saw in his eyes as he looked at me now. He wasn’t done raising me yet, and he didn’t want to leave me without a parent. He fought hard to stay alive for me. I knew what my eyes said. “Don’t leave me, I need you.”
Silently, his eyes answered back, “I’ll do my best, Mark. I love you.”
“I love you too, Pa,” My eyes conveyed.
None of this could be spoken out – it would make it too hard to walk away from. If we spoke it out loud, it would suddenly become more real. No, it had to stay in silence.
I wanted to feel his arms around me, but I also saw the answer to that in his eyes. If he put his arms around me now, he’d never let go. He’d never be able to go through with what he had to do in the morning. I loved him enough to walk away. “Goodnight, Pa.”
I left him then. I left him to a night filled with terrifying thoughts. I’m sure he spent lots of time talking to God, and lots of time thinking about me and rather he was leaving me behind.
After I stepped out onto the boardwalk, I stopped and looked over my shoulder. Would I see my Pa again? Would the prayers he was sending up to heaven be answered and a miracle be performed in the morning? Or had we just said goodbye?
As I walked out of town, I saw two of what had to be part of the gang. I stood in front of them and stared at them. I opened my mouth to beg them not to do this, but that would hurt Pa – they’d think he was a coward and I just couldn’t allow that. Pa wouldn’t want that either. So without saying a word, I walked slowly out of town. Before I got too far, I turned and looked. Pa was standing in the window watching me leave. I know I couldn’t see too well, but I just felt…deep in my heart…that he was weeping tears over watching me leave.
I wanted this night to be over. Jeffrey ran up to me as I slowly walked back into the yard. “Well, did you talk him out of it?” Jeffrey asked. I shook my head as tears fell down my cheeks. “You mean he’s still going to-“ He stopped.
I turned. In a soft, quiet, and reserved voice I answered, “My Pa is a very proud man. It’s better this way.”
Saying the words out loud almost broke my heart. I ran from him into the house, stripped off my clothes, and got into bed. I buried my head in the pillow and wept for my Pa.
Sometime later, Jeffrey undressed and got on the top bunk of the bed. I couldn’t sleep. I kept hearing gunshots and seeing my Pa falling…falling…falling…Then laying there so quiet and still. I saw myself running to him and weeping over his body.
I wept some more. "Can you sleep Mark?" Jeffrey’s voice broke the eerie silence.
"No!" I wiped at the tears on my face and sat up.
Jeffrey jumped off the top bunk and sat down on my bed. "I can't either.” Jeffrey looked at me. “I guess we’ll have to stay here until it’s over.”
“Well…my Pa wouldn’t like it if I were to stay up in town,” I answered tearfully, but I hadn’t decided just yet what I would do.
“Well you know…we can hear the gunshots from here though.” I didn’t want to think about it. "Mark, it ain't like my Pa is afraid. Well, he handles a gun real good! So it ain't like he's afraid!"
I cried some more. I hurt for my friend. I was hurting because my Pa may die in the morning. Jeffrey was hurting because deep down, he knew his father would be partly to blame if that happened. He couldn’t stand it. I’m not sure which one of us had the worst fear. "I didn't say anything like that. I didn't say nothing like that Jeffrey," I cried. I sniffed as my nose filled up with tears.
We both had tears streaming down our faces. "It's just, well he's so sick…I mean, if my Pa was better he would help your Pa tomorrow, and not leave him out there alone!"
Thinking on this made me cry harder. I couldn’t stand it - I was so scared for Pa. "I'm sorry Mark! I'm real sorry!" I looked up at him and put a hand on his shoulders. I tried to speak, to give him some words of comfort, but no words would come. We just looked into each other’s eyes. I saw the pain in Jeffrey’s eyes. I suddenly wanted to comfort him. I clung to him and cried as I thought about tomorrow.
After the tears subsided, Jeffrey laid down and finally went to sleep. But I couldn’t sleep. I walked outside and looked over the land. Everything was dark and quiet. I shivered on the porch at how alone I felt. So many times I had walked out onto our porch and looked out over the land. But this time, I wasn’t looking over our land – I was looking over a different piece of land. If it were light, I’d see the town in the distance instead of more hills and cows grazing.
I looked up at the stars and wondered if Pa was seeing them too. My eyes were red and swollen from crying, but they weren’t empty. I knew because they suddenly filled and hot tears spilled down my cheeks. I closed my eyes and saw Pa’s smile. I felt his arms around me. I heard his soothing voice. Those are the things I needed to remember.
I slowly sat down on the front steps and folded my hands. “God,” I whispered. That’s all my voice would allow “God, please…please give my Pa the strength to face those men tomorrow. I want to pray that you’ll keep him from going out there, but that would only shame him. I want you to go out there with him, God. David only needed a sling shot to face the giant and…well…Pa’s going to face a mighty big giant tomorrow. Just please…”
I stopped as I sobbed in my hands. “Please…don’t…take my Pa away!” After that, I could speak no more.
I was still on the porch praying silently when the first rays of sunshine peaked over the horizon. I looked up to see the beautiful sunrise. It wasn’t often I was awake this time of morning to see it, but I remembered a couple weeks ago and Pa and me were getting ready for an early morning and we stepped out onto the porch to see the sunrise. “There’s nothing else like it, son,” Pa had declared.
I had looked at the sunrise and all it’s beauty. “Nothing else like what, Pa?”
“God’s beauty.” Pa put his arm around my shoulders. “You know son, man can paint pictures and sell them for a lot of money, but nobody…nobody will ever be able to paint that.” Pa pointed to it. “God’s the best artist.” Pa drew me close to him as he spoke. “If he makes something like that every morning and every evening, we should never fear that he won’t care for us so much more. The birds, the bugs, even the grass – he takes care of it. Why wouldn’t he take care of you and me?”
I thought on those words now. I heard the door open. Jeffrey walked out and sat down on the steps. Neither of us said anything as he sat there and watched the sun come up. As it rose higher in the sky, our eyes filled with tears. We looked at each other but didn’t say a word. There was nothing left to say. Neither one of us wanted this to happen.
Finally, when the sun was high in the sky, Jeffrey asked, “You going?”
I shook my head. “I don’t want to see it,” I answered. “I just couldn’t…” I said nothing else.
We sat there in silence. Waiting…Listening…
Suddenly, they came. Through the silence, gunshots rang out. My eyes grew wide as they stopped. I looked at Jeffrey as my eyes filled with mournful tears. Then I stood and ran for home.
I must have ran for a long time. I didn’t stop until I reached the house. I ran inside and into the bedroom. I laid on Pa’s bed where his smell was. I grabbed his pillow and sniffed it. Then I clung to it and cried.
There had been a lot of gunshots and they didn’t sound like my Pa’s. “Oh God help me!” I cried. “Help me!” Then I laid down drew my knees up as I clung to my Pa’s pillow and cried myself to sleep.
I don’t know how long it was that I slept there. But when I woke up, I heard something outside. I realized it was the sounds of horse hooves. I sat up on the side of the bed wondering who had come to comfort me. Had Micah finally returned?
I stood on shaky knees and tried to push my fears aside. I heard footsteps out on the porch and heard the front door open. I walked to the bedroom door and placed my hand on the knob, afraid to turn it. I hesitated, knowing I couldn’t face what I would have to in only moments.
Then the door opened and I backed up as I closed my eyes. I heard my name and opened my eyes to see a figure filling the door and I looked up…up…up…
Joy suddenly filled my whole being. “Pa!” I cried as I leapt into his arms. “Oh, Pa!” I wrapped my legs around him and squeezed his neck as I covered his face with kisses -- sweet, sweet kisses. “Pa! Pa! Pa!” I kept crying over and over again.
“I stopped by the Waller’s to bring you home. Jeffrey told me you ran away after the gun fire stopped. Oh Mark, I’m so sorry you thought…” Pa was crying too. Neither one of us could talk. Pa made his way to his chair – the leather one he always sat in. He forced my legs to unwrap from his waist as he allowed me to sit in his lap, arms still around his neck. He allowed my head to rest on his shoulders and he smoothed my hair. “I’m so sorry, son.”
“Pa, I didn’t want to let you go last night, but I…I…I understood.” I lifted my head and stared into his face. “I never expected…expected you to…” I couldn’t finish that sentence.
“I thought I was going to die too, son. But our friends came through. It was an even break – four against four.” I pulled my arms from around his neck as I studied his face, wondering about the others. “They’re all okay. The gang’s all dead.”
“I’m sorry.” And I meant it. I was sorry they had to kill. “And relieved.”
There were no words. Like no words were needed last night, no words were needed today as Pa and I sat there in each other’s arms we could feel all the love and devotion for each other we needed.
My father was safe…and right where he should be, with his arms around me.
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
'The High Country'
Mark's Memories — Table of Contents
'The Shattered Idol'
around The McCain Ranch