Another year was almost over. In just a couple days, a brand new year would be upon the McCain family. Mark sat at the table eating breakfast that morning while Lucas again scolded him “Mark, don’t eat so fast, son!”
Mark looked down at this bowl of oatmeal. “Pa, I have something important to do! Is it okay if I have the day off from chores?”
“What’s so important, son?”
Mark took a long swig of his milk and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. Lucas cleared his throat. “Pa, it’s such a nice day! The sun’s shining and it’s warm enough to go without a coat. Is it okay if I just take Blue Boy and go for a long ride?”
Lucas laughed. “Well, if I was a boy your age and I had a December day like this, I’d have asked my pa the same thing!” Lucas took a drink from his coffee. “I’ll tell you what, son. You help me with the stock this morning and you can have the rest of the day off!”
Mark and Lucas worked side by side for the next four hours. They had to feed their cattle because, though they were having an unseasonable day today, it had been a rough winter and there was little grass on the range. Lucas noticed Mark look up at the sky several times. He knew Mark was anxious to go before he lost the warm weather.
Lucas stopped the wagon and watched Mark heave off some more hay for the cattle. Lucas just stared at his son for a minute, taken aback by how big he was getting. It seems like only yesterday he held that baby in his arms. Now, eleven years later, his son was working hard to become a good rancher just like his father. It seems like when Mark’s not in school, they are always working side-by-side on the ranch. Lucas suddenly got a feeling of losing a little boy. He suddenly had this urge for Mark to do little boy stuff again.
By the time they got back to the ranch, it was nearly eleven and Mark hurried to saddle Blue Boy. “You make sure you eat lunch first, boy!”
Lucas watched from the porch as Mark galloped away. He smiled and shook his head the way he always did. Sometimes he didn’t know what he’d do with that boy! Lucas walked back inside and noticed that there was a half-eaten sandwich on Mark’s plate and he hadn’t touched his milk. Mark would be doing the supper dishes by himself that night for sure!
Lucas spent the remainder of the afternoon doing chores outside. He made several repairs to the house and barn that had needed fixed. He was in the barn mid-afternoon when he heard the horses whinny as if something was amiss in the air. He stopped hammering and listened, but he heard nothing. He did feel something almost bitter in the air though. Suddenly, a cold wind blew into the barn. He hurried outside and looked up at the sky. He saw a line of clouds heading in from the north, and they were storm clouds. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees. The wind was picking up each second. He looked over the range, but saw no sign of Mark.
Lucas hurried into the barn to saddle up Razor. He could tell a winter storm was coming, and he didn’t want his eleven year old son out there by himself.
“Mark!” Lucas called again. It was no use! The wind was howling so badly that his voice was going no where. He shivered inside his coat. Snow was starting to fall, and he was afraid they were in for quite a snow storm. Lucas searched high and low for his son, but couldn’t find him anywhere! He was close to town, so traveled the rest of the way just in case Mark had disobeyed his orders to not go into town. Lucas saw Micah and hurried over to him.
“Have you seen Mark?”
“Not today. What’s wrong? Why are you in town? Don’t you know a blizzard’s coming? We just got a telegraph from up North, and this storm has dumped 3 feet of snow on them. Several are missing!”
Lucas closed his eyes. “My son’s missing!”
“You mean, he’s out in this?” Suddenly a howling wind blew through the cracks of the door and they watched in horror as flurries turned into a blinding snowfall.
Lucas hurried for the door, but Micah caught his arm. “Lucas boy, your son is sensible! He knows how to find shelter.”
“He’s my little boy, Micah! He’s only eleven years old and he’s out in this. I must go find him!”
“You can’t see two feet in front of you in this, Lucas. It’s so cold that you would freeze to death! Besides, he may be back at the cabin by now.”
Lucas sat down and shook his head. He knew Micah was right. He knew there was nothing they could do but wait and pray.
Lucas paced the floor for awhile, helpless to do anything. Was Mark home? Was he out on the range somewhere lost and wondering? Where could he be? Lucas couldn’t help staring out the window. It was dark now, and with the howling wind and blizzard conditions, he could see nothing, but he knew Mark was no where in sight. His mind drifted as he thought about his son.
That first day back in Oklahoma, he had listened to his wife scream in pain and agony as she brought forth their son. The doctor had insisted that he wait outside, but he told the doctor he would not leave his wife. He had watched her painfully try to deliver their son until the doctor finally had to take the baby from her. He watched his wife grow weaker as he held their newborn baby in his arms. In spite of his wife’s illness, he smiled at that baby in his arms. His son was so helpless and sweet! He had thought about all the adventures that child would be on.
Lucas can still remember watching Mark take his first step a couple weeks shy of his first birthday. Margaret had told him for days that he was getting ready to take his first step, and Lucas was afraid he would miss it. But one afternoon, Lucas walked into the front door, tired from a hard day of ranching. Mark always laughed when he saw his father, and today was no different at first. But when Lucas turned from hanging his hat, Mark stood on his wobbly feet and took a giant step towards his father!
Lucas remembered taking Mark fishing when he was three and laughing as he stuck the line in the water and pulled it out over and over.
Lucas remembered when the boy was four and holding his mouth open while his father squirted the milk into his mouth as he milked the cow.
Lucas remembered when Mark was five and he had climbed the tall tree in front of their house. Margaret has screamed at seeing her son high in the tree. It had startled Mark, and he fell from the tree, breaking his arm and knocking out his two front teeth. Lucas had gently picked him up and carried him to the wagon as he cried. Lucas had felt such agony as he listened to Mark cry in his mother’s arms, wishing Mark was in his arms at that moment. But when it was all over, Lucas smiled at his son’s toothless grin when he was handed the candy stick from the general store. For the next year, Mark was called his little toothless calf!
Lucas remembered Mark’s first day of school. He looked so small as the three of them walked into that schoolhouse together. Mark had clung to his father’s hand, begging his father to not make him stay. Lucas had knelt down to his level and kissed him on the cheek. Than he and Margaret turned and walked out as he heard Mark cry “Don’t go!” After he was outside, he and Margaret had hugged and shed a few tears that their little boy was growing up so fast.
Lucas pressed his head against the glass of the Marshall’s office as he remembered the small pox epidemic that invaded their community. He remembered fretting that Mark would come down with the sickness. Then he remembered watching his little son at his mother’s bedside holding her hand and begging her not to leave him. Both he and Mark were there as Margaret’s life left her body. Mark had clung to his mother, begging her to come back, and Lucas had gently taken his young son into his arms and held him for a long time while he cried.
The next few years had been difficult. They had traveled from place to place trying to find a real home that the two of them could make together. Mark turned seven, eight, nine, then ten. They had finally ridden into North Fork and found the home they were looking for. It took Lucas a while before he realized that the house he built was like the house he had left in Oklahoma. The landscape looked just like the land he and his wife had owned. Even the sunset seemed identical. But he and Mark had built their home together and inscribed the date on the house so the memory would live on forever.
Lucas remembered how many times he had feared for Mark’s life. He remembered when he thought the demented judge had shot Mark, and the loss that went through his heart in that instant moment. He remembered watching his son fall after a cow rustler tried to shoot his son, and the tears that followed when he realized his son was okay. He remembered when his son’s life had been threatened and he sat up all night watching him sleep, afraid someone would come into their home while he was sleeping.
Lucas couldn’t help smiling when he remembered all the mischief had son had done either. Countless times, he had to tell Mark to finish his food, put his dishes in the kitchen, make his bed, take off his hat, and so on…He remembered the embarrassing scene at the boarding house as he told Agnes Hamilton that his father would not punish her for not finishing her food since she was “so old and all.” He remembered the embarrassment he had felt when Mark had called the Gauchos a name he had just heard in the bank. He remembered the embarrassment when his young son tried to set him up with an ideal woman, and the trouble that had gotten him into!
Lucas turned from the window and paced some more. He looked at Micah and noticed that he too was worried. In fact, Micah was praying. Lucas ran a hand through his hair and prayed to himself as well. He’d be nothing without that boy, and he knew it!
Mark could now chop wood and stack it neatly by the door. He could tend to the stock, saddling and bedding down without any training. Mark could do all the household chores that needed done as well as Lucas could, except his cooking needed some work! But Mark was becoming a great rancher just like his father! Lucas was so glad to call Mark his son. “Where are you, son?” Lucas cried aloud as he once again looked out the window.
Mark looked out the window of the ranch house. Where could his father be? He had gotten home just before the storm hit to find his father gone. Mark had bedded down the stock and made sure the animals were all safe. He had then stumbled his way to the house and started a roaring fire in the fireplace. Mark knew his father had gone looking for him, and he was afraid his father was lost in the blizzard. Mark knew Lucas wouldn’t give up until he found his son.
He watched out the window, not being able to see anything through the pitch-blackness. He thought about his father and all the things they had been through together. One of his earliest memories was the tree of them together at Christmas as their mother made the holiday so very special. But another memory was of his father holding him in his strong, safe arms as he cried at his mother’s bedside after her death. He remembered his father sitting with him many nights until he fell asleep, his father always being there through his nightmares and fears of loosing him.
Mark remembered the promise his father had made to him soon after his mother’s death. He had promised Mark that he would not leave him – that he would always be there for him and they would be partners someday on their ranch they would someday own. Mark remembered how his father would always hug and kiss him. The closeness got him through one of the most difficult experiences of his life.
Mark remembered the fear he had every time his father had to pick up his gun and point it at another human being. He remembered his father leaving him to travel on the stagecoach alone as he went after some murdering thieves without a gun. He remembered the relief he felt when his father finally galloped into North Fork.
Mark remembered his father telling him in the hotel room one night that he would have to engage in a gunfight with an outlaw in order to save Hattie and Micah’s lives and that he could trust John Hamilton to take care of him. That last statement had put such fear into his heart that he clung to his father, never wanting to let go.
Mark remembered the day that pony had bitten him, and how he heard his father state the pony had Anthrax and he would die a slow painful death. He remembered only having one thought – to save his father’s life, but to spare his father from knowing the truth of his disease. He remembered his father’s tears as he realized what Mark was thinking, and how his father had carried him to the horse and they rode on Razor together to the doctor. That day was the day Mark declared that they would always be a team!
Mark knew he hadn’t always been an angel to his father. He remembered trying to fix his father up with that young woman at the stage depot, and he still thinks she would have made a great mother!
He remembered his father practically pulling his ear off as he lifted him from the table at the boarding house and rushed him into the kitchen. He had gotten quite a tongue lashing for that, and had gotten a dirty look later for eaves dropping after being told not to.
Mark remembered the silence on the way home the day he had called the Gaucho a Pepper gut. Then when he got home, he had been sent straight to his room until suppertime, which was again eaten in silence. But before the night was over, everything was okay.
Mark remembered how his father was always making him wash dishes for not finishing his food, and nagging him to not eat so fast. He even thought about all those excuses he tried to make to get out of going to school. He groaned as he thought of the day he suggested he stay home and clean out the barn, then having to come home that afternoon and having to clean out the barn anyways.
But in spite of it all, he loved his father and he wanted to be just like him. He was glad his father wasn’t teaching him how to use a gun yet, but to make him wait as long as possible. He was glad his father made him do so many chores, because he knew his father was teaching him how to be a rancher. He was glad his father always tried to answer all his questions and explained life’s hard issues. He was glad they didn’t hide things from each other.
“Oh pa, where are you?” Mark cried suddenly.
The blizzard lasted the whole next day. It was New Years Eve, and Lucas was still stuck in the Marshall’s office. He sighed as they ate a sandwich together. The silence was still in the air. Both men were remembering their experiences with Mark, and both were fearing the worst. By late-afternoon, the blizzard had let up and Lucas ran from the building. There was a lot of snow, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to ride home. He’d dig his way through if he had to.
Micah warned him that it could just be a lull in the storm, but Lucas didn’t listen. He’d dig his way home if he had to! Lucas did stumble his way through. There was about two feet of snow, and his feet were almost frozen, but he would get home to Mark!
Two hours passed, and he was only half way home. Lucas stopped, not knowing if he would have the strength to go on. Then he suddenly looked up at the sky and cried out to God to help him go on. He started up again, but suddenly stopped when he saw a lone person coming from a distance, riding a horse. He stopped and watched. As the figure got closer, he laughed as tears streamed down his face!
“Mark!” Lucas ran through the snow toward his son. Mark jumped off the horse and ran towards his father. They met half way and Mark jumped into his arms. They clung to each other and cried. “How’d you get through on the horse? There’s nearly two feet of snow!”
Mark laughed. “I told Sorrow we were not going to stop! It was rough, but we did it!”
Lucas sighed. “Well, I’m glad you are okay! Were you at the ranch the whole time?”
Mark nodded. “Pa, I was so worried!”
“Me too, son! Me too!”
“Well, what have you been doing the last 24 hours?” Mark asked.
Lucas looked into his son’s eyes as they turned the horse around. He laid a hand on the top of Mark’s head and smiled. “Thinking about you.”
Mark smiled. “That’s it?”
“That’s all I could do, son. How about you?”
Mark nodded. “That’s all I could do too, pa. Think about you.” Mark took his father’s arm and put it around his neck as they stumbled for home. “I take it you missed me?”
“Missed you?” Lucas smiled. “Oh yes! Every second you aren’t by my side I miss you!”
The two finally made it home and sat in front of the roaring fire. Mark had made stew and dipped a bowl for his father. “I saved some for you. I figured you’d be hungry when you got home.”
Mark stared into the bowl. “Son, tonight I won’t even complain about your cooking!” Mark rolled his eyes. “What time is it?”
Mark reached for the watch and looked. “It’s 12:01 AM. Happy New Year, Pa!”
Lucas again put his hand on Mark’s shoulders and smiled. “Happy New Year, son!”