The Writer's Corner

THE PREACHER
Written by Clara aka CTW

 


This story occurs at some point prior to The Sheridan Story (Season 1, Episode 16).

 

 

       In the ten years of his life, Mark McCain’s parents had lovingly protected him from the cruelties of the world to the extent that they could.  He had experienced petty meanness, and he had seen men shoot down other men.  He witnessed the damaging effects of retribution when Judge Burton came seeking revenge against his father,1 and saw a harsh example of greed when Oat Jackford’s men burned down their house.2  Worst of all, he had experienced the heart wrenching agony of watching his mother die when he was six years old.  Never, though, had he yet to witness abject cruelty.  His father was vigilant about protecting his child as much as possible from the ugliness of the world.  Even while teaching him life skills and responsibility, he wanted his son to enjoy his childhood and hold onto innocence as long as the realities of life would permit.

 

       Mark was a bright, energetic, optimistic boy with a compassionate heart.  He always gave people the benefit of the doubt, always seeing the good in those he met.  He held firm to the same stereotypes that most of us hold until life opens our eyes to reality.  Mark believed, for example, that teachers and doctors were all-knowing.  He assumed that all mothers baked cookies and read to their children, and that all parents loved their children in the same way his pa loved him.  He believed that preachers were good and holy men who could do no wrong; that they had a special connection to God that “ordinary” people did not; that their word was infallible. 

 

       When the time came, all too soon, that Mark encountered pure cruelty, believing these stereotypes made the experience that much harder to understand.

 

       Like most small towns in the expanding West, North Fork did not have a preacher that lived in the town.  Rather, a circuit-riding preacher came one Sunday each month.  North Fork and surrounding towns were not large enough to afford to pay a resident preacher, so they pooled their resources and shared one.

 

       On the Sundays that the preacher did not come, Mark and his father, Lucas, had their own prayer and Bible study time at home.  Mark enjoyed this time with his father and secretly hoped that North Fork would never be able to afford its own preacher; he would not want to give up this special time with his pa.  Still, he did like the preacher that was usually assigned to North Fork and – except for the misery of having to wear a tie – didn’t mind going to church one Sunday each month.

 

       As much as he enjoyed the activities of Sunday, Mark detested Saturday nights.  Why?  Saturday night was bath night!  He had always considered the bath itself an aggravation, but ever since he grew big enough to carry a bucket of water, what Mark really despised was the work that had to be done to get ready for the bath.  In his opinion, baths were purely a waste of time!

 

       In spring, summer, and early fall, Mark and Lucas bathed in a tub in the barn.  This meant waiting for a pot of water to heat up on the stove, pouring it into the water bucket, and then waiting for another pot of water to heat up, and so on, until the bucket was full.  Next, the bucket had to be lugged from the house to the barn and dumped into the tub.  After that, the whole process started over again … and again and again and again until the tub was filled.  Who had the pleasure of all this waiting and lugging and filling?  Ever since he turned ten, the pleasure belonged to Mark.

 

       In the winter, Lucas brought the tub inside so that they could bathe by the fire.  This was a little bit better because Mark didn’t have to tote the water bucket as far.  Still, the process took a long time.  The time he spent waiting for water to heat, filling up the tub, and then actually taking a bath was time that he could have spent fishing or playing with a friend or challenging his pa to a game of checkers.  Mark considered it wasted time, and he made sure to remind his pa of this almost every single Saturday.  The conversation often went something like this:

 

       “Aw, Pa!  Do I have to?  Why?”

 

       “Because you stink.”

 

       “But, Pa, it’s such a waste of good time.  Why, there are a million other things I could be doing.  Besides, I’ll just get dirty again.”

 

       “Mark, how long have you been taking a bath on Saturday nights?”

 

       “My whole entire life.”

 

“And how long have you been complaining about it?”

 

“I reckon ever since I could talk.”

 

“And has your complaining ever once made a difference?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

“Then why continue with it?”

 

       “I reckon I keep hoping it might make a difference, Pa.  And I really don’t like baths.  I guess I just want to let you know.”

 

       “Well, son, I think you have made it perfectly clear, and I am tired of hearing about it.  You will take a bath on Saturday nights for as long as I have anything to say about it, so just stop it.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

       That would be the end of it … until the next Saturday.  Luke had to admit, though, that the complaints were less frequent of late.  Mark might start up, but one look from Luke stopped him.

 

       Maybe his little boy was beginning to grow up a bit.  “And maybe,” Lucas thought to himself, “if I would go ahead and get that shower-bath rigged up3, the complaining would stop altogether.”

 

       There was no time for sleeping in on Sunday mornings, whether it was a preaching Sunday or a stay-at-home Sunday.  The stock still had to be fed and watered, the cow milked, and the eggs collected.  Lucas did not have to work as hard to get Mark up and moving as he did on weekdays because Mark didn’t mind going to church or having Bible study with his pa like he minded going to school.  The struggle on preaching Sundays was over wearing a tie.  Father and son managed to survive it and always enjoyed their wagon ride into town.

 

       Most of the North Fork congregation did not know if the regular circuit preacher or someone different would lead them in worship until he stood before them.  That created a little bit of anticipation on the evenings before preaching Sundays.  Sometimes Mark liked the different preachers, sometimes not.  Regardless of who did the preaching, he loved the hymn singing and, of course, having lunch at the hotel after the service. 

 

       On this particular Sunday, a brand new preacher had been sent to North Fork.  Generally, new preachers would introduce themselves and say a pleasant word of greeting to the congregation before starting the service, but this man didn’t seem to think that was necessary.  There was an exterior door directly behind the pulpit.  This preacher entered the church through that door and moved with long, measured strides to the pulpit.  Once there, he gripped either side of it with long-fingered hands and scanned the congregation with cold, hard eyes.  He was about six feet tall and lean.  He had a long face, clean-shaven but with raven-colored bushy eyebrows that were so long they almost formed one straight line above black steely eyes.  His thin frizzy hair matched his eyebrows in color, and hung almost to his shoulders.  He wore the standard attire for preachers – black suit with white clerical collar – but, somehow, it seemed blacker and more foreboding on the body of this stern, angry-looking man.

 

       Before the man even opened his mouth to preach, Mark was intimidated and unconsciously scooted closer to his father.

 

       “Over and over again in the New Testament, we read the exhortation to ‘love one another’.  What does it mean to love one another?  Are human beings truly capable of love?” the preacher began, slowly and quietly.

 

       “Jesus says to ‘love one another as I have loved you’.  What does that mean?  To forgive each other?  To die for each other?  If so, it is a lost cause.” 

 

His voice grew louder.  “We are too selfish to truly forgive or to die for one another.” 

 

Louder yet, he continued, “We are wicked,” … louder … “evil,” … now yelling … “self-centered creatures only out for our own gain with no hope for salvation!”  He paused, then spat out sarcastically, “Let alone love.”

 

       “You think you know differently, don’t you?  ‘Jesus saves!’ ‘Jesus promises eternal life!’  Just read the Good Book and follow the commandments and Jesus’ teachings, and you can have a love-filled life.  That’s what you think, isn’t it?” he bellowed.

 

       “Well, I am here to tell you differently.  There – is – no – such – thing – as – genuine – love – on – this – earth!”  He roared each word.  Mark pushed as close against Lucas as he could.  Lucas, feeling uneasy himself, draped an arm around Mark to give his boy a sense of protection against the verbal onslaught.

 

       “You can try all you want, but it does – not – exist!  Man is too evil to love!  Yes, Jesus saves.  Yes, He promises eternal life.  But we must suffer in this life.  We must expunge our vileness if we hope to inherit that life.  And even if we purge our souls enough to enter into eternal life, there is – no – love – in – this – wretched – world!”

 

       The preacher moved away from the pulpit and stepped down to stand amid the congregation.  He glared at Mr. Toomey and then at Miss Adams, North Fork’s blacksmith and schoolteacher. Then he scanned the congregation as if seeking a specific target.  He found it when his eyes landed on Mark and Lucas.

 

       The preacher walked over to their second row pew and gazed at Mark for a moment.  Lucas’ grip tightened around his son.

 

       Lowering his voice and speaking conversationally, the preacher said to Mark, “I bet you and your father love each other – or think you do.  I bet he takes real good care of you.  Am I right?”

 

       Mark swallowed, licked his lips, and worked to find his voice.  He managed only a shakily whispered, “Yes, sir.”

 

       “Well, I have news for you, boy,” the preacher said in a falsely sympathetic tone.  “You don’t love each other.  Not really.”  The preacher turned his attention to the entire congregation.

 

       “This is a fine example, good people of North Fork.  This man, as is true for other parents, is simply doing his job by taking care of his son.  A child is an obligation. Nothing more.  Some might say that fulfilling the obligations of parenthood is a kind of love.  Perhaps it is.  After all, a parent could choose not to feed, cloth, and house its child.  Most of you sire children to use as workers on your farms, do you not?  There is no requirement to treat a child any better than you would a hired hand or a slave.  Tending to its needs with kindness might be a kind of love.” 

 

       Turning back to Mark, he sneered, “But it isn’t the kind of love you think you have, boy.  And your love for your father isn’t really love, either.  It’s desperation and neediness and fear of being alone in this big cruel world.  You are using your father to get what you need to survive, and he is using you!”

 

       In one swift and unexpected motion, the preacher leaned toward Mark, grabbed the lapels of his jacket, and tried to pull him up off the pew and out of his father’s grasp.  Lucas’ quick reflexes responded to the assault and he tightened the hold he already had on his son with one arm and brought the other arm around to wrest him away from his attacker.  The preacher’s strength and leverage, against Lucas’ seated position in the narrow pew, made it hard for Lucas to pull Mark free.  The preacher leaned into Mark until the two were almost nose-to-nose, and then snarled, “There is no such thing as love, boy!  You are an obligation and your father is a means to an end.  He doesn’t love you.  Grow up and learn to stand on your own feet!”  He was yelling at the top of his voice, and jerking Mark on every other word.

 

       Lucas continued trying to wrench Mark away but the man’s grip on him was like that of a vice.  “That’s enough!” he hollered.  “Let go of my son!  Let him go!”

 

       Seeing that the preacher was out of control, Mr. Toomey rushed to Lucas’ aid.  Toomey was twice as broad as the preacher and an inch or two taller.  He stood behind the preacher and grabbed his arms to pull him away from Mark, while Lucas continued to tug from his position in the pew.  John Hamilton stepped into the struggle to try to pry the preacher’s hands from Mark’s jacket.  After a few minutes of struggle, the three managed to pull Mark free.  Lucas picked up his son and rushed out of the church.

 

       There was a bench behind the general store.  Sometimes, storeowner Hattie Denton retreated to the spot for a short break in the course of a hectic day.  Luke headed straight for that bench to sit with Mark and calm down.

 

       He held Mark on his lap and allowed a few minutes for the two of them to breathe.  Mark was trembling slightly, which he tended to do when he was upset.  Luke held him closer.

 

       “It’s alright, son. It’s over now.  Everything is alright.”

 

       “Why is he like that, Pa?”

 

       “I don’t know, Mark.  What I do know is that the town council is going to make sure he never comes back to North Fork – or any other town for that matter.”

 

       Mark sat up to look at Lucas.  “Is anything he said true?  I mean about there being no such thing as real love?”

 

       “No, Mark.  Nothing he said is true.  You’ve read enough of the Bible to know that.  Don’t give another thought to anything he said.”

 

       “There you two are.”  Hattie appeared around the corner.

 

       “Hattie.  Are things under control at the church?”  Lucas asked.

 

       “That poor excuse for a preacher has been hauled off to the jail, and the folks are trying to get over the shock and surprise of what happened.  How are you two?”

 

       “We’re fine, aren’t we, son?”

 

       “Yes, sir.”  Mark didn’t sound so sure.

 

       “You both have every reason to be shaken, especially you, Mark.  I’m sure you know, though, that there wasn’t a word of truth in anything he said.”

 

       “Yes, ma’am,” Mark quietly replied.

 

       “It’s just going to take a little while to put the experience behind us,” Lucas said.

 

       “Well, I might have a way to hurry that along.  Why don’t the two of you and Micah join me for lunch at my house?  Fried chicken and chocolate cake are on the menu.”

 

       Lucas noticed that Mark perked up at that announcement, and so gladly accepted.

 

       As they walked to Hattie’s, the rest of the townsfolk exited the church.  Mark’s best friend, Freddie, ran to catch up with him.  “Hey, Mark, want to go fishing?”

 

       Any other time, Mark would have begged to be allowed to go.  Today, though, he didn’t want to be away from Lucas.

 

       “Not today, Freddie.”

 

       “Aw, come on.  Why not?”

 

       “I have things to do with my pa.”

 

       “It’s ‘cause of what that dumb preacher said, isn’t it?  Mark, just forgot it.  Everyone knows he ain’t right in the head.”

 

       Lucas had walked ahead with Hattie, but now turned and called to Mark.

 

       “Look, Freddie, I have to go.  Maybe we can go fishing next weekend.  I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”

 

       When Mark caught up to Lucas, he reached for his father’s hand.  He didn’t care if his schoolmates saw and thought him a baby for it.  He needed to be close to his pa and feel the comfort of his touch.

 

       Mark knew that everyone was right about that preacher, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the things that the man had said and the look of rage in his eyes when he tried to tear him from his pa’s arms. 

 

       Mark was quiet throughout lunch and had a hard time paying attention to the conversation.  At least twice, Lucas softly chided him for not replying when Micah spoke to him.  The second time, Micah came to Mark’s defense.

 

       “That’s alright, Lucas.  Sunday is a good day for daydreaming.  Why, when I was a boy, that was my favorite thing to do on Sunday afternoons.  Sometimes I’d go fishing and let my mind wander wherever it wanted to go. Other times I’d sprawl out in an empty field and just watch the clouds roll by until I fell asleep, sunshine warm on my face.  Nowadays, my idea of a fine Sunday afternoon is a nice long nap on my soft bed!”

 

       “Thanks, Micah, and I’m sorry I wasn’t listening,” Mark replied.

 

       “There’s no need for apologies, Mark.”  Hattie came to his defense, too.  “It was a very unsettling morning.  My mind keeps wandering back to it and I didn’t experience it the way you did.  I can’t imagine what came over that man!  It’s not worth any further attention, though.  Try not to let it worry you.”

 

       “Yes, ma’am.” Mark found it rather nice to have Hattie and Micah supporting him like this.  If he weren’t still upset from the morning’s events, he might even enjoy the fact that they were overriding his father’s opinion about Mark’s lapse in social skills!

 

       As Mark and Lucas started the ride home, Mark remained somber.  Luke drove until they were about a mile out of town.  Then he pulled the wagon as far off the road as he could, brought the horses to a stop, secured the reins, and turned to face his son.

 

       “Mark, I know you’re worrying about this morning.  Tell me what’s on your mind, son.”

 

       “Well, I know what you said is right, Pa – about everything he said being wrong.”

 

       “But …” Lucas prompted.

 

       “I can’t help wondering if maybe some things are true.”

 

       “Like what, son?”

 

       “Well, like parents having an obligation to take care of their kids.  What’s the difference between doing the right thing and loving someone, Pa?”

 

       “What does your heart tell you about you and me, Mark?”

 

       Without hesitation, Mark replied, “That I love you and you love me, really and truly.  That we’re partners, and that, well … even though I know you’re in charge … that we’re friends, too.  But, best of all, you’re my pa and I’m your son.”

 

       Lucas gave his boy a tender smile and tried to hide the immense pride he was feeling.

 

       “That’s what my heart tells me, too, son.  Why does anything else matter?”

 

       “I guess it doesn’t, but I can’t help thinking about how you’re such a good man.  You help anyone that needs it.  You always do the right thing.  Why aren’t all the things you do for me about being a good person and not about love?”

 

       Lucas took his hat off and ran his hand through his hair.  Doggone if Mark didn’t sound like a philosopher!  How could he answer this question?

 

       “Mark, do you remember when we let Will Fulton4 stay with us after he broke his leg while saving your life?  And when we helped Micah5 get back on his feet?  And when Judge Burton6 fell off his horse and you comforted him?”

 

       “Yes, sir.”

 

       “Well, on all of those occasions, we were trying to do the right thing by helping people who needed it at the time.  The Bible tells us to care for our neighbors.  That’s what we were doing for Will and Micah, and what you did for Judge Burton.”

 

       “But Micah is our friend.”

 

       “He became our friend, yes.  At first, though, he was a stranger in need of kindness and a little push to get back on the right track.”

 

       “I see.”

 

       “Doing things like that is a kind of love, Mark.  I believe it’s one of the kinds of love that we read about in the Bible.  Putting aside our personal desires – and sometimes our feelings about another person – to help in a time of need is a way to show a certain kind of love to our neighbors.

 

       “Now, would I have stepped between Will and a gun, and given my life to save his?  No.  Would I have helped him if I thought it would put you in danger?  No.  But, I most definitely would step between you and a gun to save your life.  I would do absolutely anything for you, Mark.  I will always put you first above everything and everyone.  The kind of love that I have for you is the greatest and deepest kind of love there is.  I could never stop loving you even if I tried.  If you committed the worst possible crime, I would be heartbroken and probably angry, but I would not stop loving you.  That kind of love goes far beyond trying to be a good person.”

 

       Emotion welled up in Lucas’ voice as he spoke to Mark. 

 

       Even though he already knew the truth of these things, hearing his father say them stirred Mark’s heart anew and caused silent tears to slide down his face.  When Lucas finished speaking, Mark stood and stepped close to his father, wrapped his arms around Lucas’ shoulders and nestled his head against his father’s neck.  Lucas embraced his child and each held the other close for a moment.

 

       “I love you like that, too, Pa,” Mark whispered.

 

       “I know you do, son.”

 

       Mark straightened and looked into Lucas’ eyes.  “Thank you, Pa.”

 

       “For what, son?”

 

       “For explaining what I already knew in my heart … and for … everything.”

 

       Lucas gave him a big smile.  “You’re welcome, son.”

 

       Hoping all was settled, Lucas changed the tone.  “Ready to go home now and forget all about that mean old preacher?”

 

       “There’s one more thing I can’t stop thinking about, Pa.”

 

       “What’s that, son?”

 

       Mark sat back down on the wagon seat, but stayed close to his father.

 

       “What he said about me not really loving you – that it’s just about me needing you and being afraid to be alone in the world.”

 

       “Well, now.  Didn’t you already answer that for yourself, son?  You said that you know in your heart that you and I love each other, really and truly.”

 

       “I do know, Pa, but … well … I do need you, and I am afraid of something happening to you, just like he said.”

 

       “Mark, being fearful of losing someone you love is natural.  Part of being a family is depending on each other for certain things – including love.  If, God forbid, someone were to kidnap you and it took me a while to find you, you would have to depend on that person for food, water, and shelter.  Right?”

 

       “Yeah.”

 

       “Would that mean that you love the person?”

 

       “No, sir.”

 

       “In a family, we do depend on each other for things such as food and shelter and getting work done, but families depend on each other for much more important things.  Things like learning how to get along in the world, having someone to talk through our troubles with and give us guidance, having someone to love us no matter what.  Yes, he’s right that we need each other, but the kind of need I’m talking about is the kind that comes out of loving someone deeply.  For us, love comes first.  Does that make sense to you, son?”

 

       “Yes, sir.  Thanks, Pa.  I think I new all along.  I just needed to hear you say it.”  Mark reached over and gave his pa another hug.

 

       “So, are you ready to forget about that old preacher now and go home to a lazy Sunday afternoon?”

 

       “Ready!” Mark declared.  “Can we spend it fishing, Pa?  Please?”

 

       “Sure we can, son!”

 

       Mark was prone to nightmares, so Lucas was concerned that the events of the morning might trigger one or two that night.  Thankfully, though, all was well until the next day.

 

       That next morning, Lucas rode into town with Mark and, after leaving his son at school, stopped in at Micah’s office to learn what was to become of the nameless preacher. 

 

       “Morning, Micah.”

 

“Morning to you, Lucas.  What brings you into town at this time of day?”

 

“I was curious about your guest.”

 

“Oh.  Is Mark still having a hard time with what happened?”

 

       “No, we talked it out yesterday and everything is fine.  I’m wondering if we’re going to have to deal with that preacher any longer.  By the way, has he told you his name?  I’m getting tired of calling him ‘the preacher’.”

 

       “No.  For some reason, he refuses to share his name.  Coffee?”

 

       “Sure.  Thanks.”  Micah handed his friend a cup of steaming black coffee.  Luke perched on the edge of the marshal’s desk while Micah sorted through a stack of Wanted posters.

 

       “So, are you keeping him here?”

 

       “Until I can find out who sent him.  It’d be nice to see that North Fork is the last place to experience his unpleasant behavior.”

 

       “Kind of hard to do without a name.”

 

       “Yes, but I’m trying.  I wired a description to the church that supplies our circuit preachers.  It’s a starting point.”

 

       “Mind if I talk to him?”

 

“No, but he’s not here.”

 

“I thought you said you were keeping him here.”

 

       “Yes, I suppose I was unclear about that.  I’m keeping him in town.  I don’t have cause to keep him locked up.  He’s over at the hotel.”

 

“He’s staying voluntarily?”

 

       “He thinks he has a mission to complete in North Fork.  Seems the Lord told him that we are all headed to eternal damnation.  He’s determined to preach again on Sunday in the hope of saving our souls.”

 

       Lucas stood up and demanded, “He what?”

 

       “Calm down, Lucas-boy!  He isn’t going to darken the door of the church again, but I’m playing along in order to keep him here until I can find someone to escort him to whatever comeuppance his supervisors bring down on bad behavior such as his.”

 

“Yeah, well, I hope the escort arrives before he can do anymore damage.”

 

“You and the rest of the town.  Don’t worry, Lucas.  Mark won’t have to see him again.”

 

       Micah should have known that someone like the nameless preacher (NP) could not be kept silent.  Even as he and Lucas were talking, NP had taken it upon himself to see to the moral instruction of the children of North Fork.

 

       School had been in session for about twenty minutes.  The students were busy with various reading assignments while Miss Adams administered the weekly spelling test to each grade level.  Except for the sound of Miss Adams’ voice calling out spelling words and the gentle “fwip” of pages turning, the room was quiet.  It is understandable, then, that every person in the room jumped when the front door crashed open.  They all turned to see NP standing at the back of the room, tall and imposing, swathed in black, and glaring at them.

 

Miss Adams was quick to overcome her surprise.  “Can I help you, sir?”

 

“No, but perhaps I can help you,” NP politely replied.

 

“Oh?”

 

       “You have a room full of heathens, ma’am.  It is my calling to preach to heathens and return their souls to God.”

 

       “Thank you, sir, but perhaps that could wait for another time.  We are in the midst of testing right now.”

 

       “Wait?” NP roared, causing everyone to cringe.  “Wait for salvation?  Testing is more important than banishing Satan?  What are you thinking, woman!”

 

“Sir, I would be willing to allow a quiet discussion, but this kind of behavior …”

 

       NP interrupted with fire, “You will not tell me what to do, woman!  I will preach when and where and how I see fit, and I see Satan working within these walls.  I will banish him if it is the last thing I do!”

 

       “These are children, sir!  You are mistaken!  Satan is not here!”  Miss Adams had been standing near the youngest students to dictate their spelling test.

 

       “I will have silence!”  With that bellowed comment, NP struck Miss Adams across the face.  The blow knocked her off her feet and, as she fell, her head hit the corner of a student’s desk and she landed unconscious on the floor.

 

       The children now were terrified of what might come next, Mark McCain included.  He had been afraid of another verbal assault from NP.  Now, he was afraid that something worse might happen to him or one of his classmates.  Someone had to do something to stop this.

 

       Mark was scared to move.  He thought about the older students and wondered if one of them might be brave enough to act.  He doubted it.  The boys tried to act grown up, but underneath the bravado, they were still frightened little kids.  Mark had seen it when they got into trouble with Miss Adams.

 

       Mark didn’t feel especially brave himself, but somebody had to do something.  Could he help?  How?

 

       The main thing was to get an adult to the school.  Mark considered himself a fast runner.  Maybe he could slip out when NP was looking in the opposite direction.  He had to try!

 

       NP scanned the room.  His eyes stopped on Mark.  Mark held his breath.  NP glared at him for what seemed like an eternity.  Finally, he continued scanning the room and stopped on the big boys. 

 

       “You think you are something special, don’t you?” NP snarled at the boys.  “Because you are the oldest in the school, you think you are special and worthy of some sort of distinction.  You think you are grown up and deserving of the privileges afforded adults.  I am here to disabuse you of those notions.  You are nothing more than conduits for the work of the devil!”

 

       It seemed to Mark that NP was enjoying his tirade too much to notice any movement behind his back.  So, he took a deep breath, and then slipped out of his seat as quietly as he could and began running on tiptoe down the aisle and toward the door.

 

       “Stop, boy!” roared NP.  Mark froze.  The sound of that bellowing voice vibrated through him and bound him in place.

 

       Before Mark knew what was happening, NP had grabbed his arm, jerked him around, seized his shoulders, and lifted him up.  NP’s face was an inch from Mark’s.  It was dark and terrible.  Mark would not have been surprised if he had seen steam emitting from the raging black eyes.

 

       “You!  You spawn of Satan!  You dare to move?  You dare to defy me?  You dare to claim to love and be loved?  You impertinent, superior, self-important agent of evil!  You think you are worthy of love?  You are nothing!  Nothing!!”  As he spewed the last word, NP flung Mark against the nearest wall.  Mark’s back bore the brunt of the crash, but the momentum caused his head to jerk back and hit the wall hard enough to render him unconscious.  He landed in a slump against the wall.

 

       When Mark awoke an hour or so later, he found himself on the examining table in Doctor Burrage’s office.  Later, he would learn that Freddie had succeeded in slipping out and getting help.  Micah, Lucas, Mr. Toomey, and Mr. Hamilton had come to the school.  After the four of them subdued NP, Micah and Mr. Toomey took him back to jail.  Mr. Hamilton carried Miss Adams to her buggy and drove her to the doctor’s office, Lucas following behind on his horse with an unresponsive Mark in his arms.

 

“Pa?” Mark called.

 

       “I’m right here, son,” came the reassuring response.  Lucas moved into Mark’s field of vision and took his hand.

 

“How are you feeling, son?”

 

“My head hurts,” he answered groggily.

 

       “I’m sure it does.  You have quite a knot on the back of it.  Do you remember what happened?”

 

“That preacher got angry and threw me against the wall.”

 

       Lucas clenched his teeth together in an attempt to restrain his anger.  “Did something happen to set him off?”

 

       “I don’t know.  He came to the school and started yelling and hit Miss Adams.”  Mark gasped as he remembered his teacher.  “Miss Adams!  Pa, is she alright?”

 

       Lucas patted Mark’s hand and calmed him.  “She’s going to be fine, son.  She’s here, too.  Doc Burrage is tending to her in another room.”

 

       “Did I hear my name?”  The doctor came into the room and approached the examining table

 

“Well, look who decided to wake up!  How are you feeling, Mark?”

 

“My head hurts and I feel kind of sleepy.”

 

       “Well, that’s to be expected.  In the next day or two, you’ll probably start to feel the bruises that are on your back, too.  The good news, though, is that you are going to be just fine.  Now, let’s check you out.”

 

       Doctor Burrage checked Mark’s vital signs, and followed up with a few questions to evaluate the extent of his concussion.  “Can you tell me how old you are, Mark?”

 

“Ten.”

 

“Good.  What year is it?”

 

“Eighteen eighty-one.”

 

“How many fingers am I holding up?”  He held up two fingers.

 

“Two.”

 

“Good.  Do you feel sick to your stomach, or have any pain other than the headache?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

       “Alright.  Lucas, I want to keep him here overnight for observation.  Everything seems to be fine, but his head took a pretty hard hit.  Miss Adams is going to be moved to her house; Hattie offered to stay with her tonight.  You can move Mark into the back room shortly.  Mark, your job is to rest.  A little later, we might see how your stomach feels about some tea and toast.  Right now, sleep.”

 

       As anxious as Lucas was to have a few words with NP, he could not leave Mark’s side.  His desire for retaliation would have to wait.

 

       Mark seemed on track for a quick recovery.  Doctor Burrage agreed to let him go home the following afternoon, but with strict orders to take it easy.  He could sit up for a few hours a day, and do an hour of schoolwork in the morning and again in the afternoon.  Otherwise, he was to stay in bed and rest.  Burrage reminded Lucas of the symptoms of concussion and advised him to be on the alert for the next few days.

 

       Two days after Mark returned home, he had an unexpected visit from Miss Adams.  He was tremendously relieved to see for himself that she was well.  He almost gave her a hug before remembering that she was a schoolteacher; he thought it might be a betrayal of his peers to show too much affection.  When he learned that Miss Adams had brought along homework, Mark was glad he had resisted the impulse!

 

       Luke took a turn at washing the dishes that evening while Mark worked on the arithmetic lesson that Miss Adams had brought.  Mark was exceptionally quiet.  He had not one word of complaint about having to do the work.  This was highly unusual because he had no love for arithmetic whatsoever, and complained about it as loudly and unceasingly as he did about taking baths.  Luke decided his son’s unusual quietness was because of what he had been through, and because of the physical discomfort he continued to experience.  The headache persisted and the bruises on his back were causing a fair amount of pain and making it difficult to sleep.

 

After a while, the silence was broken when Mark asked, “Papa?”

 

       Surprised, Luke snapped his head around to look at his son.  Mark had not called him “papa” since he was five or six years old.  Hearing it again gave Luke a pleasant thrill.

 

“Yes, son?

 

“When’s Mama coming home?”

 

       The pleasant thrill vanished and was replaced by confusion and the first seed of fear.  Lucas couldn’t seem to catch his breath.  What had Mark just asked?  Had he heard correctly?

 

“How long does it take a baby to get born, Papa?  Will Mama be gone all night?”

 

       Luke was at a complete loss.  What did this mean?  What was wrong with his child?  How should he respond?  He concentrated on calming himself down.  He couldn’t cause Mark worry or alarm.  He had to find his breath … and his voice.

 

       Lucas walked over to the table and sat down next to Mark, who was absorbed in his work.  When Luke glanced down at the paper, he saw that the “work” was no longer arithmetic.  Mark was concentrating on drawing a horse – one that looked very much like the horses that he had drawn when he was five years old.

 

“Mark?  What are you doing, son?” Luke gently asked.

 

       Mark seemed to startle.  He blinked, studied his paper, and then said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Pa.  I guess I got to daydreaming.  I didn’t mean to draw on my homework paper.  I’m sorry.”

 

       “It’s okay, son.  It can be erased.”  Although trembling inside, Luke tried to be calm and encouraging.

 

“Mark, what was it you were asking me?”

 

“I was asking you something?”  Mark scrunched his forehead as he tried to remember.

 

       “I … I don’t remember, Pa.  I guess I really was lost in a daydream.  I didn’t even know it.”

 

       Mark seemed to be himself again, but Lucas was not reassured.  The questions Mark had asked, the scribbling on his homework paper, calling him “papa” … none of those things was typical.  Lucas was alarmed.

 

       “Pa, could you please help me with these fractions?  I just don’t understand this stuff about common denominators.  It’s making me mad!”

 

       “Sure, son.  Let’s see what you have so far.”

 

       After they had been working for about ten minutes, Lucas noticed that Mark appeared drowsy and was rubbing his head.

 

“Son?  Is your headache worse?”

 

“It’s not so bad, Pa.  I just feel awful tired all of a sudden.”

 

       “Well, you’ve been hunkered over these fractions for quite a while.  Why don’t we call it a night?  We can work more in the morning when you’re feeling fresh.”

 

“Okay, Pa.  Can I go to bed now?”

 

“Sure, son.”

 

                        Lucas followed Mark into the bedroom.  He seemed to be dozing off even as he undressed.  Lucas helped him, pulling his boots and socks off and his nightshirt over his head when Mark couldn’t quite figure out how to do it.

 

       Luke laid his son down on the pillow, pulled his legs up over the side of the bed, turned him on his side to protect the bruises on his back, and then pulled the covers snugly up around him.  He smoothed his hair back, and looked on his little boy with concern.

 

Mark stirred slightly and, eyes still closed, softly called, “Pa?”

 

“Yes, son?”

 

       There was no immediate response.  Mark was so still for so long that Luke thought he had fallen back asleep, but then he took a deep breath, released a long sigh, and said, “I love you.”

 

His voice threatening to break, Luke replied, “I love you, too, son.”

 

       The seed of fear that was planted a short time ago when Mark called him “papa” ballooned within him, and Lucas was consumed with worry for his child.  He flew out of the room and to the barn, wanting to be out of Mark’s hearing when the sobs broke.

 

       He did not understand the intensity of his fear.  He only knew that something was terribly wrong with his child and he didn’t know what to do.  He could not recall feeling this fearful and indecisive since his dear Margaret became ill and died so unexpectedly.

 

       He paced the barn, working to regain control and think through the situation rationally.  He wanted to scoop Mark up and take him into town to Doctor Burrage.  Was he overreacting?

 

       “Calm down, McCain.  Think it through,” he lectured himself.  “Asking when Margaret is coming home is not normal, but the fatigue could be due to all that he’s been through plus the pain from his injuries.  On the other hand, it came on pretty quickly and it was more than just fatigue.  He was almost … lethargic.  Doc Burrage said he didn’t think the concussion was serious, but to be on the lookout for symptoms.”

 

       Luke was not going to take chances with his son’s life.  They were going to town.

 

       He piled fresh hay into the wagon to make a soft bed that would cushion Mark against the worst of a bumpy ride.  Next, he hitched up the team and led them out into the yard.  He went in the house and collected a sheet, pillow, and blanket to complete Mark’s little nest.

 

       Once the wagon was ready, Lucas went into the bedroom and knelt down by Mark’s bed.  “Mark?”  Lucas shook him lightly.  “Mark?”  There was no response, so he called louder, “Mark!”

 

       Panic rose again and he picked up Mark, raced to the wagon, secured him on the hay pallet, and took off to town as fast as he dared. 

 

       “Watch yourself, McCain,” he told himself out loud.  “Calm down.  The road is dark.  What good would it do Mark if you run the wagon off the road?”

 

       The drive to town seemed interminable.  Lucas fought panic the entire ride.  He was terrified but knew that he had to calm down for the sake of his son.  He had to be able to think rationally, and he had to be strong for his boy.

 

       Doctor Burrage was finishing his monthly supply inventory and looking forward to going home when Lucas pushed open the door and stood before him with Mark cradled in his arms.

 

“What’s happened, Luke?”

 

       “He won’t wake up, Doc!  First he got confused, calling me ‘papa’ and asking when his mother would be home.  Then he became sleepy all of a sudden, so much so that he needed help undressing for bed.  I tried to wake him before coming here, and he didn’t so much as flinch!”

 

       While Lucas was talking, the doctor guided him to the examining table and indicated to Lucas to lay Mark down.

 

       Doctor Burrage called Mark’s name and gently poked and prodded, trying to get a response – all to no avail.  He checked his eyes for response to light, and listened to his lungs and heart.

 

       “Were there any other symptoms, Luke?  Did he complain of nausea or worsening headache?”

 

       “I asked about his headache.  He said it wasn’t bad.  His only complaint was that he felt tired.”

 

       “Well,” Burrage replied, “The combination of headache, tiredness, and the confusion you mentioned all point to a concussion.  The fact that he is not responsive suggests that it is severe.  Sometimes, these things are slow to present themselves.”

 

“Doc, what are you telling me?”

 

       “I’m telling you that this looks like a serious head injury, Luke.  Because he is not responding at all, I am concerned that he is in a coma.  It is not hopeless.  All we can do, though, is watch and wait.”

 

       Lucas stared in disbelief at his precious little boy.  He felt lost and filled with dread.  “Please, God,” he silently prayed.  “Please don’t take my son from me.  Please.”

 

       “Luke, bring him to the back room.  I want to keep an eye on him and this room will be more comfortable for both of you.” 

 

       Doctor Burrage led Lucas to the back room.  There, they settled Mark on a bed with a brass headboard, down-filled mattress and pillows, soft clean sheets, and a patchwork quilt made of brightly colored squares.

 

       On one side of the bed stood a table topped with an oil lamp, a drinking glass, a basin and pitcher, and a towel.  A rocking chair and hassock had been placed on the other side.

 

       After pulling the covers over his son, Lucas sat on the side of the bed.  He gazed at his child, smoothed his hair, traced the outline of his face.

 

       “Oh, Margaret,” he said to himself.  “If you can, my dear sweet wife, help us.  Help me.”

 

       Four years had passed since the death of his wife, and Lucas had managed to overcome the grief and start a new life with his son.  Still, he had not stopped missing her.  The feelings of loss and insecurity intensified when Mark was ill or enduring some other kind of trial.  Luke longed for Margaret’s counsel at such times.

 

“Luke?”

 

Doctor Burrage’s voice startled Lucas.

 

“Yeah, Doc?”

 

       “He’s young and strong, but this could be a long road.  Try to stay positive.”  The doctor rested a reassuring hand on Lucas’ shoulder and then left.

 

       Lucas moved to the rocking chair and noticed a Bible resting on the hassock.  He picked it up but didn’t open it right away.  He held it to his heart as he called to mind images of Margaret rocking Mark in the rocking chair that had sat in their kitchen near the stove.  Luke had spent a goodly number of hours in that chair, too, lulling his infant son to sleep in those first months when Margaret was recovering from a difficult and near-deadly childbirth.  As Mark grew into toddler-hood, the rocking chair was an almost guaranteed source of comfort after a temper tantrum or nightmare.  By the time he turned three, Mark could crawl onto the chair and rock himself.  Still, he loved the rocker best when he was cuddled in his ma or pa’s lap.  The rocker was the best place for a story or a song or a comforting chat. 

 

       Lucas had not realized that he missed “rocking chair time.”  He supposed he got away from the habit during the years that he and Mark were traveling in search of their new life after Margaret’s death.  The rocking chair had a place in their home now but was largely ignored.  Sometimes it sat by the sideboard, other times on the porch.  Neither Lucas nor Mark ever sat in it.  “Do I see it as some kind of a shrine to Margaret?” Lucas wondered.  He made a promise to himself to put it to use once Mark recovered.  Mark might be too old for story time, but that didn’t mean the rocker had to remain idle.

 

       Doctor Burrage returned with a cot, pillow, and blanket.  “This will make for more comfortable sleeping, Luke.  And don’t tell me you don’t need it.  As I said, this could be a long road.  Sleep when you can and eat when told in order to keep up your strength.  Doctor’s orders!”

 

       “Thanks, Doc” was the automatic reply.  Lucas didn’t seem to really register Burrage’s presence.

 

       “Don’t mention it.  I will be in and out through the night to check on Mark, but call me if there is any change.  I have a room across the hall.”

 

       This time, Lucas turned and looked at Doctor Burrage and offered a sincere, “Thank you, Doc.”

 

       “Try to rest,” the doctor replied and then left.

 

       The night passed uneventfully.  Lucas dozed in the rocking chair, waking every fifteen minutes or so to look at Mark or touch him or read a passage from the Bible.  When Doctor Burrage made his last check of the night at about 4:00, he urged Lucas to stretch out on the cot and get some real sleep.

 

“I don’t think I can, Doc.”

 

       “Well, Luke, give it a try.  You are going to need it in order to get through the coming days.”

 

“Alright, Doc.  I’ll try.”

 

       Lucas prided himself on being a man of his word, so as soon as Doctor Burrage left the room, he pulled off his boots and lay down on the cot.  “Stretching out,” as the doctor put it, was not an option.  Lucas’ 6´5˝ frame was too long for the cot by a foot.  Still, it was better than the rocking chair.  The panic and dread he had felt earlier had turned to a kind of numbness that helped ease him into sleep.  He stayed that way until sunup.

 

       Mark did not regain consciousness that day.  With each passing hour, Lucas’ fear for his son grew stronger and his fury with NP more dangerous.

 

       Micah stopped by from time to time throughout the day.  With each visit, Luke railed on about NP and insisted on seeing him.  “How could he do this to my child, Micah?  Why?”

 

       Each time, Micah urged Lucas to stay away from the jail.  It would serve no purpose to confront the preacher. 

 

       “Focus on Mark, Lucas-boy.  The preacher will get his due when Judge Hanavan gets here.  He can’t seem to hear sensible talk, anyway.  All he does is rant about how we’re all going to burn in hell for our evil ways.  He wouldn’t hear you, and that would just make you feel worse.”

 

       “Right now, I don’t much care if he hears, Micah.  I want to give him a piece of my mind and a good taste of my fist!  But you’re right.  I need to stay here with Mark.  I just wish I understood why this happened.”

 

       Hattie Denton was a regular visitor, too.  She loved Mark and Lucas as if they were her own.  She brought breakfast, lunch, and supper for Lucas and stayed to make sure he ate.  She listened while he vented his worries and offered a compassionate, motherly touch that was a balm to Luke’s aching spirit.

 

       That night passed much the same as the previous one with the exception that Lucas slept for several hours.  When he awoke about 7:00 the next morning, he was greeted by his son’s wide-open bright brown eyes.  A surge of joy and thanksgiving swept through his being.  He breathed a prayer of thanks as he took the two steps from the cot to the bed.

 

“Good morning, son!”

 

“Mornin’, Papa.”

 

       ‘Papa’.  That one word tempered the joy in Lucas’ heart with anxiety.  His son was awake, though, and seemingly alert.  For that, he was deeply grateful.

 

“Papa, where are we and why does my head hurt?”

 

       “Well, son, your head hurts because you bumped it pretty hard.  We are in a bedroom at Doc Burrage’s office.  We’re staying here until your head’s all better.”

 

“Who is Doc Burrage?”

 

       “Oh, well,” Lucas had to think fast.  “What was that doctor’s name in Enid?” He wondered to himself.  The name clicked into his memory.

 

       “He is a new doctor in town,” Luke said aloud to his son.  “He is filling in for Doctor Harte while he is out of town.”

 

“Since we’re in town, do you think Ma will come see us?”

 

       Luke silently prayed, “Help me, dear Lord.  Please help me find the right words.  Help me to stay calm.”

 

       “Remember, son, the friend she’s helping isn’t here in Enid.  She is in Red Springs.6  I don’t think we will see her until Mrs. Curry is all better.”

 

“I sure do miss her, don’t you, Pa?”

 

       “I sure do, son.  Very much.”  Lucas reached over and tenderly stroked his son’s head.

 

There was a soft tap on the door and Doctor Burrage walked in.

 

       “Well, what have we here?  A wide awake child taking up space in my office?”  Doc Burrage grumbled.

 

       Burrage liked to wear a gruff exterior to hide his genuinely good-hearted nature.  He seemed to think it put children and their parents at ease, too, if he wasn’t overly sympathetic.  Ten-year-old Mark saw right through the facade, but five-year-old Mark wasn’t sure what to make of it.  Lucas noticed his caution and hurried to soothe him, while at the same time alerting the doctor to Mark’s state of mind.

 

       “Mark, this is Doctor Burrage.  Doc, I was just telling Mark that you are helping Doctor Harte by filling in while he is away.”

 

       Picking up on the cue, Doctor Burrage replied, “I’m glad I could be here.  The conference that he is attending will update him on all the latest medical findings.  He will be a better doctor for it.  Mark, I’m glad to meet you.  It’s good to see that you’re awake!”

 

       Burrage had toned down the “gruff act” a little bit, and that eased Mark’s concern.  He thought he just might like this doctor.

 

“How are you feeling?  Does your head still hurt?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“How about your stomach?  Do you feel sick?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

Doctor Burrage held up two fingers.  “How many fingers am I holding up?”

 

“Two.”

 

       The doctor then checked Mark’s eyes for responsiveness to light and seemed satisfied with his findings.

 

       “Okay, Mark.  I’m going to ask you a few more questions to help me understand how that bump on your head is doing.  Okay?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“What is your full name?”

 

“Mark Warren McCain.”

 

“Who’s this big old ugly man here?”

 

       Mark’s temper rose in a flash.  “He is my papa and he’s not ugly and I love him!”

 

       Lucas wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.  He covered his mouth with a hand and remained silent.  He knew he should scold Mark for his rudeness, but didn’t trust his voice.

 

“Well, then, you certainly set me straight!” Doctor Burrage exclaimed.

 

Mark was worried that he had made a big mistake and disappointed his father.

 

“I’m sorry I yelled, sir, but I don’t like people to say mean things about my papa.”

 

       “Mark,” Lucas then started to chide him.

 

       Doc Burrage interrupted.  “It’s alright, Mark.  I shouldn’t have teased you like that, but it was part of my little test to see how you’re doing.”

 

       “Oh.”  That being the case, Mark was willing to let Burrage off the hook.  “Did I get it right?”

 

       “You sure did!  Okay.  I have a couple of more questions.  Ready?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“What is the name of the town you live in?”

 

“Enid.”

 

“How old are you, Mark?”

 

“I am five and a half years old.”

 

       “Well, you’re practically a man!”  That comment earned the doctor a big smile from his patient.

 

“Alright, Mark, let’s sit you up.  Easy now. Nice and slow.”

 

       Doctor Burrage eased Mark up into a sitting position and repositioned the pillows against the headboard to give him comfortable support.

 

“How does that feel?”

 

“The room is moving.”

 

“It should stop in a minute.”

 

Lucas sat on the edge of the bed and held Mark’s hand.  That seemed to calm him.

 

“Better?” the doctor asked after a moment.

 

“Yes, sir.  It’s stopping now.”

 

“Good.  Are you hungry?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

       “Why don’t I send over to the hotel for some toast and hot tea, then?  We’ll see how that sits on your stomach.  Lucas, bacon and eggs suit you?”

 

“I don’t need anything, Doc.”

 

The doctor gave Lucas a warning glare.  “Bacon and eggs, or oatmeal?”

 

“Oatmeal’s fine, Doc.  Thank you,” Lucas obediently replied.

 

       While Burrage was gone, Mark peppered his pa with questions.  He was just as talkative and inquisitive as when he really was five years old, asking question after question with hardly a breath in between.  It was surreal, yet an almost happy circumstance for Lucas to be reacquainted with a younger version of his child.

 

       Doctor Burrage returned with toast and hot tea for Mark, a bowl of steaming oatmeal sprinkled with brown sugar for Lucas, and a pot of coffee.

 

       “I ran into Hattie,” he said.  “She wanted to come by, but I suggested she wait until this afternoon.”

 

“Who’s Hattie?” Mark inquired.

 

       “She is a nice lady who would say that little boys should eat their toast and sip their tea while it’s hot,” Lucas replied.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

       “Now, Mark, eat slowly,” Doctor Burrage instructed.  “Let your stomach get used to having food in it again.  Luke, I’m going to the hotel for my own breakfast.  I’ll check back in a half hour or so.”

 

Mark and Lucas ate in companionable silence for a few minutes.  “Papa?” Mark said.

 

“What is it, son?”

 

“I don’t feel so good.”

 

       Lucas looked up and saw that Mark had turned ashen and his skin looked waxy. Experience told him what that meant.  He took the plate of toast from Mark’s hands and reached for the basin on the bedside table.  He turned Mark over the basin just in time for Mark to relieve himself of the little bit of food he had eaten.

 

       When Mark was finished, Lucas carefully laid him back against the headboard.  He reached over to the table for the empty glass, filled it with water from the pitcher, and told Mark to rinse his mouth.  After Mark had done so, Lucas took the towel from the table, dampened it, and bathed Mark’s face and neck.

 

“Better?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Mark answered drowsily.

 

“Good.  Alright, let’s get you settled.”

 

       Lucas helped Mark slip back down under the covers, mindful of the still-sore bruises on his back, and repositioned the pillow.  He was asleep in seconds.

 

       Mark slept for most of the day.  Each time he woke up, Doctor Burrage had him sit up for a few minutes and sip hot tea with honey.  He would wait until tomorrow to try solid food again.  Each time, Mark managed to stay awake for about 20 minutes before nodding off again.

 

       The next day, he seemed to be much better.  Even the headache had lessened, and he was able to keep dry toast down.  Lucas took heart in this, even though Mark still thought that he was five years old.

 

       On the fourth day, Doctor Burrage was ready to send Mark home.  He discussed this privately with Lucas.

 

“Doc, he still thinks he’s five years old.  What do we do about that?”

 

       “Lucas, it does happen that concussions cause this kind of confusion.  Most times, the confusion reverses itself as the brain heals, but it takes time.  All you can do is wait it out.  Keep following Mark’s lead.  As outlandish as this might sound, try to enjoy having your five-year-old back.  I’m sure there are things you miss about Mark at that age that your ten-year-old would consider babyish.”

 

       “That’s true, Doc, but he’s not five.”  Lucas was growing agitated.  “What if this doesn’t reverse itself?  And how am I going to explain the house and the ranch?  How long before he starts insisting to see his mother?  How do I handle this, Doc?”

 

       “Lucas, first you’ve got to calm down.  Didn’t you say that the house is just like the one in Enid?”

 

       “More or less, but not exactly.  The old house had two bedrooms.  He’ll wonder about that.  He’ll notice we’re not in Enid as soon as we walk out of your office.  He’ll know the road to home is different.  There’s no way to hide that from him.”

 

       “Lucas, you are a quick thinker.  Stay calm and you will be able to navigate your way through this.  And if all else fails, change the subject.  A five-year-old’s attention is easily shifted.  You’ll be fine, Luke.  I’ll keep visitors away as best I can so that you don’t have to explain a lot of new faces, but I will encourage Hattie to visit often.  I think she might be a big help to both of you.”

 

       Luke ran his hands through his hair.  How would he possibly handle this? Again he silently prayed, “Dear God, please help me!”

 

       Burrage thought for a moment.  “There is one other thing that I think I would be willing to do.”

 

“What’s that, Doc?”

 

       “When it’s time for you to head home, I will give Mark a mild sedative.  He’ll be asleep when you take him out of my office and sleep through the drive home.  That way, he won’t be upset by seeing a strange town, and you won’t have to explain the unfamiliar route to the ranch.”

 

       Lucas took a deep breath and released a weighty sigh.  “Thanks, Doc.  I really do appreciate any help you can give.”

 

“Well that’s what you pay me for,” he growled.

 

       “Now, Luke, keep Mark’s diet bland for the next few days.  Don’t be surprised if he does little more than sleep.  Full recovery from the concussion is going to take some time.  Try to get him up for an hour or so a few times a day.  You’ll be able to judge when he’s had enough.  I’ll stop by every day to look in on him and determine when his activity can be increased.”

 

       Fortunately for Lucas, Mark slept all the way home and for several hours after he had been tucked into bed.  Luke thought about using the time to tend to the stock, but was hesitant to leave Mark alone.  As he was debating the matter, a knock came at the door.  When Luke opened it, he found Billy Lehigh on the other side.

 

“Billy!  What brings you around?”

 

“I thought you might need a hand with the stock for a few days.”

 

“What?”

 

       “You know how fast news travels around North Fork.  I happened to be in town running errands for Mr. Jackford when I heard about Mark’s injury.  Now, if I were a father, I wouldn’t want to be away from my injured child for a second, let alone long enough to unharness and bed down a team of horses, and tend to other barn chores.”

 

       “Thank you, Billy.  I was just trying to decide how to handle that very dilemma.  I am grateful to you.”

 

       “Mr. McCain, the way I see it, I owe you for life. The way Sam and I treated you that day7 … well I will always regret it.  Besides, I have a soft spot for Mark.  I’ll get to work and be back mornings and evenings the next few days.  You won’t even know I’m here.  Don’t worry about a thing.”

 

“Thank you, Billy.”

 

       Lucas took a deep breath and offered a quick prayer of thanks.  He and Mark had been talking a little over a week ago about what it means to show love to neighbors.  “I guess I have just been put on the receiving end of that.”  Lucas paused and thought a moment.  “It isn’t only Billy.  Hattie, Micah, Doc Burrage, John, Toomey ... Mark and I are on the receiving end of neighborly love again and again.  It’s time I start paying better attention to that.”

 

       While Mark slept, Lucas hid away as many items as he could see that might cause Mark confusion or trigger a question that Lucas would find hard to answer.  The potential question that caused him the most apprehension was “What happened to the other bedroom, Papa?”  He could not figure out how to answer that.

 

       He prepared chicken broth and kept it warm on the stove, set a loaf of bread to rise, and baked a batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies.  Luke baked cakes and pies as often as once a week, but he had not baked cookies even one time in the years since Margaret’s death.  The only reason he could come up with for that choice was that cookies were too time-consuming.  Once the batter was mixed, you couldn’t just pop it in the oven and be done with it.  No, you had to scoop out each cookie and could bake only 10 or 12 at a time.  He’d have to spend all afternoon babysitting those cookies.  He did not have time for that!

 

       Today, though, Luke was anxious to do anything he could think of to ease the worries Mark may have when he awoke in a house that had no sign of his mother’s presence.

 

       “No sign of his mother’s presence!”  Panic started to rise again.  “He’s inquisitive.  He’ll notice, he’ll look.  Our bedroom is gone, her clothes are gone, her sewing is gone, her books are gone!  Oh, Margaret!  What do I do?”

 

It was then that a small voice called from the bedroom, “Papa?”

 

       Luke took a deep breath, said another prayer for guidance, and slowly walked to the bedroom.

 

“Hi, son,” Luke greeted his boy with a smile.

 

“Hi, Papa.”

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

“Yucky.”

 

“Hmmm.  ‘Yucky’ is not good.  Does your head still hurt?”

 

Mark nodded.

 

“Are we home, Papa?”

 

“Yes, we are.”

 

“How did we get here?  I don’t remember.”

 

“That’s because you slept the whole way from the doctor’s office.”

 

“I did?”

 

“You did.”

 

       Mark smelled something familiar.  He sniffed the air just to be sure.  “Did Mama bake oatmeal-raisin cookies?”

 

“Not Mama.  She is still in Red Springs.”

 

“You baked them, Papa?  Honest?”

 

       “Honest.  I don’t know how good they will be, but I gave it a try because I know how much you like them.”

 

“You baked them for me?”

 

“I did.”

 

“Because you love me!” Mark crowed.  “Just the way Mama said!”

 

“What did Mama say, son?”

 

“She said, ‘Everything Papa does, he does with love for us.’”

 

Luke smiled and cleared the emotion from his throat.  “She’s right, son.”

 

       Mark yawned, closed his eyes, and fell back to sleep.  Lucas sat and watched him for a few minutes, and then went back to the stove to finish the baking.

 

When Mark woke two hours later, he was hungry for cookies. 

 

       “Let’s see if you can manage chicken broth and toast, son.  If you can keep that down, maybe we’ll try a cookie tomorrow.”

 

“Oh, please, Papa?  I’ll eat it real slow, I promise.”

 

       “I’m sure you would, but it’s important we follow the doctor’s orders.  You don’t want to get sick to your stomach again, do you?”

 

“No, sir.”  Mark knew he had been defeated.

 

“Let’s sit you up.”  Luke eased Mark into a sitting position against the pillows.

 

“The room is turning again, Papa.”

 

“That’s because of that bump on your head.  It will stop in a minute.”

 

“Papa?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“I had a funny dream.”

 

“Oh?  What was it about?”

 

       “I don’t remember most of it, but there was a mean preacher in it.  He had black eyes and long black hair and he yelled a lot.  Papa, I didn’t think preachers were supposed to be mean.”

 

       “Well, Mark, most are kind, wise men, but once in a while, it’s possible to find one who isn’t quite so kind.”

 

“But why, Papa?”

 

       “Because preachers are people just like everyone else.  There are lots of nice people in the world, and some who aren’t so nice.”

 

“Well, I didn’t like that preacher in my dream.”

 

“Aren’t you glad it was just a dream?”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

“Has the room stopped spinning?

 

“Yes, sir.  Can I try the broth now?”

 

“Yes, you may.  Stay put.  It will be ready in a few minutes.”

 

       In spite of his headache, Luke’s little chatterbox was back in full force.  While he prepared the toast and filled a bowl with warm broth, Mark called out questions from the bedroom nonstop: what should he plant in his vegetable garden, why did he have to go to school when he turned six, when could he start helping Papa milk the cow again and feed the chickens again, why was it taking Mama’s friend so long to have her baby, could they sit in the rocking chair and read stories, and on and on.

 

       “The rocking chair,” Luke remembered.  “Did I keep any of Mark’s little-boy books?”  He would look through the trunk while Mark was napping.

 

       Luke returned to the bedroom.  “Alright, my little chatterbox, let’s see how your tummy likes this.”

 

Mark’s tummy seemed to approve, and he fell asleep almost as soon as he finished eating.

 

       After cleaning up the dishes, Lucas pulled out the trunk and was pleased to find two of Mark’s favorite books tucked into his baby blanket.  He started to close the trunk when a thought struck him.  “Did Mark still sleep with his blanket when he was five, or had we broken him of that habit by then?” Lucas wondered.  “No, it was shortly after he turned six.  I remember Margaret and I having that discussion with him right after Christmas ... and I remember worrying that he would start asking for it again after she died.”

 

       He wondered if he should pull it out now.  Best not to, he decided.  If it took a while for Mark’s mind to return to the present, it wouldn’t do for his 10-year-old to be dragging around a baby blanket.  It was good to know where to find it, though, if an emergency arose.

 

       Mark awoke around suppertime.  Chicken broth and toast stayed down once again, giving Lucas hope that real recovery was in process this time.  Mark was pleased because it meant he might be allowed to have a cookie tomorrow.

 

       As Luke knew he would, Mark remembered his request to sit in the rocking chair and read stories.  Luke had pulled the rocker into the bedroom while Mark was sleeping.  He didn’t want to risk questions that might come up about the missing second bedroom if he brought Mark into the main room.

 

       Luke settled Mark on his lap and tucked the quilt from his bed around him.  “Oh, how I’ve missed this,” he thought.

 

“Which book shall it be, son?”

 

“Peter Parley!” Mark decided.

 

“Peter Parley it is,” and Luke began to read.

 

       “ ‘The Faithful Dog.’ Very well, I will now tell you of Henry and his faithful dog. There was once a young man, whose name was Henry; and he had a dog, whose name was Trusty. Henry was very fond of rambling in the woods, and climbing over the rocks and hills. …” 8

 

       Mark was asleep in ten minutes.  Luke put the book aside, and soaked up the feeling of rocking his little boy in his arms once again.  How he missed this!  At age ten, Mark still cuddled up to his father from time to time, but those occasions were growing less frequent far faster than Luke had imagined they would.  While he wanted his son to be restored to perfect health, he could not help but savor this moment.

 

       After a while, Luke tucked Mark back into bed, had a bite of supper – because Hattie would have his hide if he didn’t – and then went to bed.

 

Late in the night, Luke was awakened by Mark’s cry.

 

“Let go of me!  Let go!  Papa, help me!”

 

       Lucas lifted Mark into his arms and called to him softly, “Mark, wake up, son.  Wake up, Mark. You’re dreaming.” 

 

       Mark finally pulled himself out of the dream and clung to his father.  “Papa,” he cried.  “That mean preacher came back!  He wouldn’t let me go!”

 

“It’s okay, Mark.  You’re safe now.  Papa’s here with you.”

 

“He tried to take me away from you!  He said you don’t love me!”

 

       “But you know that I do, son.  I love you and you love me, and we always will.  Don’t give that silly old dream another thought.”

 

       As Luke rubbed Mark’s back and murmured soothing words, his boy calmed and fell back to sleep.

 

       The next morning, Luke’s little chatterbox was gone.  Mark was subdued.  He ate his breakfast, but without interest.  The boy that Luke knew would have been begging for the promised cookie from the moment he awoke, but this Mark didn’t say a word about it.  He asked for only one thing: to sit in the rocker and watch his pa work.

 

       “Well, now,” Luke said in as cheerful a voice as he could muster.  “I don’t have any work that needs doing this morning.  What if we sit in the rocking chair together and read more from Peter Parley?”

 

“Okay, Papa,” Mark replied flatly.

 

And so they did until sleep came again.

 

Doctor Burrage came by while Mark was napping.

 

       “Doc, he was alert and talkative and begging for cookies yesterday.  He had a dream last night about that abominable preacher and has hardly said two words today.  All the spark has gone out of him.”

 

“Did he tell you what the dream was about?”

 

       “Just that the so-called preacher wouldn’t let him go.  Mark dreamed about him yesterday afternoon, too, but it didn’t seem to affect him the way last night’s has.”

 

“What did he say about the first dream?”

 

       “He described the man’s appearance and said he was mean and yelled a lot.  He wanted to know how it was possible for a preacher to be so mean.  It was a matter-of-fact conversation.”

 

“Have you tried to get him to talk to you about the second dream?”

 

       “Well, not very hard.  Given his condition, I didn’t want to push too much.  Last night, his worry seemed to be that the man told him I don’t really love him.  Doc, what has this monster done to my child … and why?”  Lucas was ready to snap.  Doc Burrage could see it.

 

       “Luke, go into town and talk to the man.  Get this out of your system.  Get the answers you need.”

 

       “I can’t leave Mark, Doc!  If he wakes up and I’m not here …”

 

“I’ll be here, Luke,” Burrage interrupted.  “He knows me.  It’ll be alright.”

 

“What if he has another nightmare?”

 

       “Luke, he’ll be okay.  Go deal with this man before you explode.  You need to do this in order to be one hundred percent available to Mark.  Mark will be okay with me for a little while.  Go.”

 

       Lucas thought for a minute.  “Alright, Doc.  Thank you.”

 

Micah was finishing an arrest report when Lucas walked into his office.

 

       “Lucas-boy!  It’s good to see you!  Come on in.  Mark must be doing better if you’re here.”

 

“No, he isn’t.  Doc is staying with him while I take care of business here.”

 

“Business?”

 

       “I need to talk to him, Micah.  He’s destroyed my child.  It’s time he heard from me, and it’s time I hear from him about his ludicrous reasons for attacking Mark!”

 

       “Alright, Lucas, but wait a minute.  What do you mean he’s ‘destroyed’ Mark?  As terrible as what he did is, Mark’s injuries will heal.”

 

       “It’s not just the physical injuries, Micah.  My ten-year-old – who still thinks he’s five –  dreamed about a black-eyed, black-haired, ‘mean’ preacher last night.  Today, he’s virtually shut down.  He’s not talking, not showing interest in anything.  The light has gone out of his eyes.  This poor excuse for a human being is going to answer for all of it!”

 

       Micah said nothing, but opened the door that led to the cells and ushered Lucas in.  He closed the door behind Lucas and returned to his desk.

 

NP was lying on the cot, staring up at the ceiling.  He did not acknowledge Lucas.

 

Lucas got right to the point.  “Who are you and why did you attack my son?”

 

Silence was the answer to his question.

 

       Lucas desperately wanted to rattle the cell bars and scream his rage, but he knew that would get him nowhere with this man.  He would have to wait him out.

 

After several minutes, still staring at the ceiling, NP spoke.

 

       “I am God’s messenger, sent to rid the world of Satan and lead wayward souls back to Him.”

 

                        “Do you think God would approve of you terrorizing little boys?” Lucas asked through clenched teeth.

 

       “I am God’s chosen messenger.  He knows me.  He would not have sent me if He did not approve of my methods.”

 

       “What possible reason do you have for telling children that there is no such thing as love in this world?”

 

“It is the truth.”

 

       “Perhaps in your experience.  Certainly not in mine.  Not in the world in which the people of this town live.”

 

       With each statement, Lucas was losing his battle to stay calm.  His rage was threatening to spill over and he did not care. 

 

       “Who gives you the authority to destroy a child’s spirit?  Who are you to tell my child he is not loved?  Who are you to throw my child against a wall?  Who are you and what do you have against this town and my child?”  Lucas was yelling now, but NP had not moved and showed no sign of emotion.

 

“WHO ARE YOU??” Lucas thundered.

 

       NP slowly stood and walked to the bars of the cell.  He stared at Lucas for a moment before speaking, quietly and calmly.  “I am Mark McCain.”

 

“What?” Lucas whispered.

 

       “I am Mark McCain.  I am Mark McCain who thought he was loved, but whose parents ripped that belief from his young soul when they revealed the evil in their own hearts.  I am Mark McCain who was taught that the world is full of hate.  I am Mark McCain who learned that the only way to survive is to banish evil.  And how does one do that?  By destroying the conduits for evil … the souls of human beings.  Break their spirits.  Bring them to their knees.  Satan cannot live in the pain of their loneliness and despair.  They are too broken to work for him.  Empty vessels are superior to vessels filled with evil.

 

       “You ask why I chose your precious little boy.  Because he is a conduit for evil just like everyone else, only worse.  He believes unquestioningly in love.  That makes him too trusting.  It makes him careless and unaware.  Satan will sneak into unguarded vessels faster and with more power than any other.  He had to be broken!”

 

NP’s composure was beginning to erode.

 

       “I’ll tell you another reason, Mr. Perfect Father.  Your precious little boy has what I once thought I had … what I longed to have, but never did.  No one is going to have love when I cannot.  You and your little boy turn my stomach and make me seethe with rage,” he snorted.  “Your high and mighty attitude.  His big innocent eyes and trusting way.  What rot!  I will not abide it!  If I wasn’t loved, no one will be!”

 

Just as Lucas reached out to grab him, NP stepped out of reach.

 

       “I heard you tell the marshal that I destroyed your son.  In that case, my work is done.  I have shown him the truth!”  NP gloated.  “There is no love!  I have destroyed him for Satan and saved him for God!  And I have taken from him that which was taken from me.  I can end my mission and misery in peace and meet my Maker with a clear conscience.  Maybe in that world I will find the love which was denied me in this one.”

 

       Before Lucas knew what was happening, NP pulled an object from his sleeve and jammed it into his neck.  He collapsed onto the bed, again staring up at the ceiling.  Lucas looked on, appalled at what had happened.

 

       “There is no love in this world, Mr. Perfect Father.  Better that your boy learn that and be stripped of hope now.  You will thank me one day, and so will he.”

 

NP said this without emotion as blood flowed from his wound.  And then he was gone.

 

       Lucas stared.  He didn’t know what to make of what he had just witnessed.  As he stood there, Micah came in.

 

“Lucas?”

 

       “He was insane, Micah.  That’s all I can understand of what I just saw and heard.  Insane and insanely jealous.”  Lucas paused.  “And he made me want to hold even tighter to my boy.”

 

Lucas turned and walked out, and rode home to his son.

 

Mark was asleep when Lucas returned.

 

“Has he been asleep the whole time?” Lucas asked the doctor.

 

“He has.  Did you get any answers to your questions?”

 

“Not really, Doc.  All that’s clear is that the man was mad.”

 

“It is rare that there is an explanation for the cruelties in this world.”

 

“I know, but I wish I understood this.  Maybe I could better help Mark.”

 

       “Luke, I think you have everything you need to help Mark.  You love him and he knows it and believes in it.  Whatever you need will flow from that.”

 

“I wish I had your confidence, Doc.”

 

“Trust in yourself and your son, Luke.”

 

       Burrage stood to leave.  “I’ll be back tomorrow to check on Mark.  Let him try a little oatmeal when he wakes up.  See how he handles that.  He can try one of those cookies that I smell, too.”

 

“Would you like one, Doc?  You can tell me if they’re any good.”

 

“Sure, I’ll be your test subject.”

 

Luke uncovered the plate of cookies and brought them to the table.  “Help yourself.”

 

       Doctor Burrage, perhaps in a demonstration of trust in his friend’s abilities, took a big bite and chewed it slowly.  “Hmm.”  He chewed some more, wrinkling his brow in concentration.

 

“Oh, come on, Doc.  Is it edible or not?”

 

“I give it high marks, Luke.  Can I have another for the road?”

 

Lucas almost laughed. “Sure, Doc.  Take two or three.”

 

       After the doctor left, Lucas went into the bedroom, sat in the rocking chair, and watched his son sleep. 

 

The next thing he knew, Mark’s voice was drawing him out of his own sleep.

 

“Papa?”

 

“Yes, son?”

 

“Can I sit with you?”

 

“Of course.”

 

       When Mark was situated in his father’s lap and the rocker began its soothing sway, he asked, “Please help me understand, Papa.”

 

“Understand what, son?”

 

       “The dream about that mean preacher.  Why do I know him?  Why does the dream make me so sad?”

 

       “You know him, son, because he came to our town one Sunday and preached.  It was a very upsetting sermon.  He said mean things to you and to other people.  He tried to make you believe that there is no such thing as love.  I think that’s why the dream makes you sad.”

 

“No such thing as love?”

 

“Mmmhmm.”

 

“But that can’t be true.”

 

       Mark sat up, put his hands on Luke’s shoulders, and looked him in the eyes.  “It can’t be.  I see it every day in all the things you do for me.  I love you and you love me.  I know it, Pa.  It’s real.  It’s the most real thing I know.  Whatever that man said, it’s not true and never will be.”

 

       “You’re right, son.  Maybe in the dream you couldn’t remember that.  Now that you have, maybe the sadness will go away.”

 

“I’m sad for him, though, Pa.  It seems like maybe no one ever loved him.”

 

“That might be so.  You have a good, caring heart, Mark.  I’m proud of you for that.”

 

       “If that’s true, I can’t take credit for it, Pa.  I got it from you and Ma.”  Mark finally smiled.  That smile was what Lucas needed to renew his spirit.  He was starting to feel that he had his 10-year-old back. 

 

“Wait a minute,” he thought.  “He called me ‘pa’.”

 

“Mark, how old are you, son?”  He asked aloud.

 

“I’m ten, Pa.  You know that.”

 

                        He smoothed Mark’s hair and looked into his clear, trusting eyes.  “So you are, son.  So you are.”

 

       Lucas gently pressed Mark’s head back down to his shoulder, and resumed rocking his boy until both of them were lulled into a peaceful sleep.

 

 

 

Notes

 

1.“Eight Hours to Die” (Season 1, Episode 6)

2. “Home Ranch” (Season 1, Episode 2)
 

3. “The Sheridan Story” (Season 1, Episode 16).  In this episode, Mark tells Frank Blandon about the “shower bath” that Lucas built behind the house.


4. “End of a Young Gun” (Season 1, Episode 3)
 

5. “The Marshal” (Season 1, Episode 4)


6.  Red Springs is a fictional town intended to be near Enid, Oklahoma.  I had hoped to use the name of an actual town near Enid, but learned in the research process that Enid was not established until 1893.  The towns within a seven-mile radius were established later than that.  This points out another blooper in the television series.  The McCains could not have lived in Enid during the time frame indicated in the series because it did not exist.  Prior to 1893, the land in this region of Oklahoma was designated as perpetual tribal hunting grounds for the Cherokee Nation by treaties of 1828 and 1835.  This began to change after the Civil War, but it was still almost 30 years before white settlers were able to live in the region.

Because some Cherokee Indians had fought on the side of the Confederacy, the federal government demanded that a new treaty be written after the war. The new treaty reduced the original reservation lands and permitted “friendly tribes” to be moved into the eastern end of the region.

With the start of cattle drives, the Cherokee leased the land to cattlemen that wanted to fatten their cattle on the grasses before taking them to Kansas.  Settlers, wanting to own their own land, viewed this use of the area as a waste of fertile farmland and pressured the government to purchase the land from the Cherokee. Congress eventually paid $8,505,736 (about $1.40 per acre), and announced the opening of the region to homesteaders.  President Grover Cleveland designated September 16, 1893 as the date of the “run” for 6,000,000 acres.  Enid was born a few weeks prior to this.  According to the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, the only permanent structure in Enid on the day of the land run was the newly built land office.

 

7.  “Home Ranch” (Season 1, Episode 2)

 

8.  Peter Parley is the pseudonym of American author Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793-1860).  “Peter Parley’s Juvenile Tales” apparently was a popular children’s book in the mid to late 19th century.  You can read it at http://www.merrycoz.org/books/juvenile/JUVENILE.HTM#dog.
 

CTW

This is a story based on the TV series “The Rifleman”

Here are some other great stories.  Enjoy!
 

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