As I was eating breakfast one morning, my Pa braced the subject of school. He said that it was time for me to start back up. He felt I had had plenty of time to adjust to our new life here in North Fork, and it was now time for me to go to school. Now, I must admit that this news didn’t exactly thrill me! I felt I was learning enough from him and couldn’t learn anymore then that in the classroom. He didn’t agree with me. I was enjoying exploring the ranch, but again Pa told me that didn’t matter. I was going to school when it reopened from break in a few weeks!
He then told me to hurry with breakfast because we had some people coming over. I looked up at him, wondering why he hadn’t mentioned it before. “Well, you know that colt I brought in the other day?” I nodded. “I’m breaking him for you. He’ll be your very own!”
I was so excited! “For me? You mean my very own colt?”
Pa smiled as I started eating faster. “Mark, stop bolting your food. They aren’t coming over for a couple hours yet. Why do you think I waited until now to tell you?”
People started arriving at 9:30. I was almost done with my chores, so I came to stand beside Pa and greet the men. Pa looked down at me and raised an eyebrow. “Chores done?”
“Just got the eggs to gather.” Pa looked at me. “I-I guess I forgot to gather them before breakfast.”
Pa motioned for me to get to it. I hurried, breaking two in the process. Then I quickly carried them into the house. I ran to the corral and climbed up on the fence so I could get a better look see. Pa came to stand right beside me as the first man climbed up on Duster. He managed to stay on a couple seconds before he was thrown.
Pa and I would look at each other and laugh each time another man was thrown. But some of the men were able to stay on longer than others. No one was able to stay on long enough to calm him though.
Finally, it was Pa’s turn. “Good luck, Pa!” I said.
Pa smiled at me as he patted my back. Then he went over and climbed on with some help. I watched him get ready. My heart started beating really fast as he braced himself. “Okay, let him go!” I heard Pa say.
Duster started kicking around something fierce. My Pa was a big man, so I guess that helped him stay on longer. Pa was doing really good, shaking around but staying put on the horse. Suddenly, I heard someone behind me say “Well, that looks like a frolicsome little beast!”
I couldn’t take my eyes off my Pa. I kept cheering for him. But I answered the voice. “His name’s Duster. He’s mine. That is, he will be, soon as he’s broke.”
I smiled. He was still going strong! I was so proud of my Pa. But suddenly, this man said something that drew my attention away from my Pa. “I wouldn’t bet on the rider, boy. He’s gonna get his whiskers bucked off any minute!”
His words startled me. I turned around to see who would say such a thing about my Pa. I stared at what met my eyes. I recognized him right away from the picture my mother always kept on her desk. My Pa still kept it there, because he knew how much it would mean to Ma. I just stared at him, surprised that such a legend I had heard stories about was actually here talking to me!
“Well, what’s the matter? Swallow something you can’t get down?” Uncle Johnny asked as he pulled my hat over my eyes. I swallowed as I jumped off the fence and ran into the house to get his picture. Pa’s breaking Duster was suddenly forgotten as I sat down at Pa’s desk and picked up my Uncle Johnny’s picture. “He looks just the same, Ma!” I declared as I looked lovingly at my Ma’s picture.
Then I ran back out of the house. By the time I got out there, my Pa had been thrown. I climbed back up on the fence to watch as Uncle Johnny took a try at Duster. I knew he had more of a chance then anybody because he was a rodeo star! “That’s your Uncle Johnny,” Pa announced.
“I know,” I smiled proudly. Then I showed him the picture. Pa smiled at me. I watched Uncle Johnny get ready. He did a good ride! He was able to break Duster without any trouble at all. I cheered him on proudly and was proud when Duster began walking calmly around the corral. He had done it!
I put my arm around Pa as he opened the gate to walk inside. Pa picked me up and carried him over to Uncle Johnny as we were formally introduced. I suddenly jumped into Johnny’s arms. I was so proud of him. I told him about how my Ma always talked about him. I felt I had always known him – that’s why the moment I saw him I had warmed up to him.
After the men left, we had a wonderful visit. Johnny was able to tell us about his rodeo adventures. Pa suggested to him that it was time to settle down, but Johnny didn’t want to talk about it. I even got in on the conversation, telling him he might even like it. “Look fellas, this is a family visit. Let’s not make me a problem,” he finally said, letting us know the conversation was closed for now.
Then Mr. Kemper came to talk to my Uncle Johnny. He was talking about mean ol’ Mr. Stacey and a rebel colt he had named Lucifer. Nobody had been able to break him, but he was going to bet money that my Uncle Johnny could do it. Uncle Johnny agreed and I proudly assured Mr. Kemper that Uncle Johnny would come through for him. I told him that by the time Uncle Johnny was through with him, his name would be “Buttermilk.”
We had supper as I asked Uncle Johnny more questions about his rodeo adventures and other things he did. I had a lot of years to catch up on, so I had a lot to ask. Finally, Pa said, “Mark, you’ll have plenty of time to ask Johnny all those questions later! Right now eat your food, Boy!”
I gave pa a disappointed look, but knew from his tone of voice that I better stop talking and do more eating. Now mind you, my Pa never cared if I talked at the table, but I hadn’t taken two bites of my food in the ten minutes we had been sitting there, so for that reason, I had to stay quiet for the rest of the meal and listen to Pa and Uncle Johnny talk.
Finally, I was done eating. Pa told me to start cleaning the dishes. He knew how much I hated doing dishes, but he also knew that I would do as told. Uncle Johnny announced he was going into town for awhile. “Oh, but I wanted to talk to you some more!” I moaned.
Pa laughed. “You’ll have tomorrow, boy! Now get those dishes done.”
I finished the dishes and went to help Pa get Johnny’s bed ready. I wondered why Uncle Johnny had decided to go into town now, when he had turned down my Pa’s offer to go earlier. “Restless, I imagine,” my Pa stated. “You think a lot of your Uncle Johnny. Don’t ya, son?”
I was proud of Uncle Johnny! I could still remember Ma talking about her brother while she lovingly looked at his picture. I was only six when she died, but there were many things about her I could remember. One thing I always remembered was sitting in her lap in her rocking chair as she told me stories of Uncle Johnny and his adventures. “The way ma talked, I’d rather be like him than anyone else in the world!” I stated proudly.
Suddenly, Pa grabbed a piece of paper and was staring at it. I saw the hard look that had suddenly replaced the softness on his face. I was worried, because it had changed so fast. I asked him what was wrong. “Stop fussing with those blankets and get to bed!” he harshly ordered.
I was shocked! It wasn’t even time for me to go to bed yet, and I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I started to walk away, but turned around. Something wasn’t right here! “Pa, I was hoping I could stay up until Uncle Johnny-“ I started.
“You heard me, son. Get to bed!” He said these words in an angry voice. I didn’t understand why he was so angry with me, but I knew he would tell me if he wanted me to know. I knew enough not to say anymore about it at the moment. I didn’t want him to become any angrier then he already was.
I slowly walked into the bedroom and sat on my bed as I started taking my boots off. I stared at the door deep in thought wondering what I had done. A few minutes later Pa opened the door to look in on me. I was still sitting on the side of the bed. “Turn that light out and go to sleep,” he said. His voice was softer, but there was still a sound of anger…or hurt…
“Yes sir,” I answered as I blew the light out and laid down. Pa started to close the door. “Goodnight Pa,” I said softly.
Pa came into the bedroom then. He walked up to the bed and laid a hand on my forehead. Then he tosseled my hair. “Goodnight, son,” he answered. Then without any further explanation, he closed the door and left.
The next morning when I woke up, Pa was quietly getting dressed. I sat up in bed and stretched. “Uncle Johnny still sleeping?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Pa mumbled.
I still saw the same expression on his face – one of hurt and anger. But I didn’t understand what was wrong. I started getting dressed. A couple times I looked over at my Pa, but didn’t say anything. Suddenly, I asked, “Pa, did I do something wrong?”
Pa looked at me then. His eyes crinkled up and a small grin tipped the corners of his mouth upward. “No, son. You didn’t.”
“So you aren’t mad at me?” I asked.
“It’s not you I’m mad at.” Pa stood up and came over to me. He put his arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “Let’s leave it at that, son, huh?” he asked.
I merely nodded. He gave me another rough grin, and then he walked out the door, leaving me to try to understand for myself what was going on.
Pa came and called me into breakfast while I was doing my morning chores. I carefully carried the milk bucket into the house. Pa met me at the door and grabbed it from me. “Go wash your hands, son.”
After I sat down at the table, I saw my Uncle Johnny’s face. He had a black eye. My Pa’s grim expression had returned and there was an eerie silence at the table. “Mark, ask the blessing, huh?” Pa suddenly stated.
I did, making sure to thank God for bringing my Uncle Johnny here for a visit. When I opened my eyes after the prayer, Pa was staring hard at Uncle Johnny. I wondered what was going on, but still said nothing. I could tell that Pa wasn’t in a talking or listening mood, and the best thing for me to do was to stay silent.
I kept looking at Uncle Johnny and his black eye, wondering what had happened. Finally, I guess he couldn’t take the cold silence anymore. “I guess it calls for an explanation, Mark,” he started. The he told me a story about a man in town saying some inappropriate things to a lady, so he decided to butt in only to find out the woman was his wife.
I laughed, but I could tell my Pa wasn’t too happy with his explanation. Suddenly, Pa stood up and stated he was going to town. I didn’t like it when my Pa was like this. He had assured me that it wasn’t me that made his mood so sour this time, but I knew someone had! It made me kind of sad to see my Pa like this. “You clean up here,” he told me.
When Pa came back, his mood was no better. I started to ask him about it a couple times, but somehow he knew what I was about to ask and just gave me a look that told me not to ask the question. I was frustrated, and he knew it. Uncle Johnny wasn’t even home for supper, and this didn’t help my Pa’s mood any. He anxiously looked at the door as if he was almost afraid he would come back. Finally at supper, I tried again. “Pa, what’s wrong?”
Pa wouldn’t answer me. “Just eat your supper, Mark!”
“But Pa, I thought we always agreed to tell each other everything.”
Suddenly, my Pa sat down his fork and laid his hand on top of mine. “I will, son. But I need time to come to terms with this myself,” he stated. “I know you don’t like seeing me like this, but you are going to just have to understand that as your father, there are times I want to…have to protect you from certain things.” Pa silently looked in my eyes before asking, “You understand me?”
I nodded and lowered my head back to my plate. Pa stood up. “I’m going to go work in the barn. I want you to wash up these dishes and then get ready for bed.”
Ready for bed? It was early yet. “But Pa,” I started. Pa turned around and gave me a hard stare. “Yes sir,” I answered as I turned to gather up the dishes. I was hoping that what ever the problem was would go away in a few days.
After the dishes were done, I got ready for bed. I looked out the window and saw Pa working in the barn. That’s what he did when he was upset like this – worked. I knew the barn didn’t need the cleaning he was giving it, but that was the way Pa worked through his anger, so I let it be. I sat on my bed deep in thought. I didn’t have to go to bed until 8:30, and I knew it wasn’t that time yet. So I sat on my bed in silence, allowing myself to think about what could be wrong.
Suddenly, I heard Uncle Johnny ride up. He stumbled off his horse and onto the porch. I ran to the door and saw that he was drunk. This was the last thing my Pa needed to see in the mood he was in. He didn’t like people getting drunk – saw no cause for it. So I hurried him inside before Pa could catch on.
I helped him over to his cot. I knew the best thing for him right now was to go to sleep, so I started taking his boots off for him. “Mark, my partner, you are a good boy! You know, I got championship belts and a whole mess of medals from rodeoin’. Would you like to have ‘em, kid? ”
No matter how drunk he was, it wouldn’t change my opinion of him. My mother was proud of him for who he was, and no mistakes now would change that. I understood that Uncle Johnny was different, but I didn’t care. He was my mother’s brother and I loved him. “Don’t need no medals to prove anything to me, Uncle Johnny. You’re all right just the way you are,” I assured him.
I tried to get him to calm down and go to sleep, but Uncle Johnny was upset and really bothered about something. He suddenly grabbed me and told me he had some things to tell me. I sat down next to him to listen. “Mark, I’ve done some things that I’m not proud of. You know, the rodeoing has always been my job. I had a bad fall and hurt myself. The doctor told me I’d never be able to work on the rodeo again.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Johnny,” I stated.
“Mark my boy, I’m gonna give you a piece of advice. Follow in your Pa’s footsteps. He’s the best man I ever knew!”
“You’re a pretty good man too, Uncle Johnny,” I stated.
“You wanta know why I drink?” Uncle Johnny suddenly asked. He moaned as he put a hand to his forehead. “Well, I’ll tell ya, boy. I drink to cover up the pain.”
Uncle Johnny gave me a sad smile. “The pain of not being able to do what your heart wants to do anymore. When you drink, you forget. But drinking makes you do a lot of stupid things.” I just sat there in silence, waiting for him to go on. “Mark, I’m a wanted man.”
My eyes grew wide. “Does my Pa know?”
He nodded. “He found the wanted poster I had.”
I looked toward the door and swallowed hard. “Is-is that why he’s so mad?”
Uncle Johnny nodded. “He’s disappointed in me. I said some things the other night that really hurt him too.”
I knew better then to ask what they were. I swallowed hard again. “What did you do?” I asked.
“I held up an express office. I only did it because I was drunk, Mark, and I didn’t take anything. Just the same, I…” Uncle Johnny closed his eyes. “You better get to bed before your pa comes in here and catches you up.”
I nodded and walked towards the door. “Are you gonna turn yourself in?”
Uncle Johnny lifted his head form the pillow and stared at me. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.
I walked back over to the cot. “I want you to turn yourself in,” I said quietly. It broke my heart to say that, but I knew it was the only thing to do.
Uncle Johnny stretched his hand out to me. I came over and took it. “You are a good boy, Mark. Your father is doing a wonderful job.” He ran a hand through my hair. “Your ma would be so proud.”
“You miss her?” I asked.
He nodded. “Everyday. She was something special!” Then he put his hand to the back of my neck and smiled. “I’ll turn myself in after the contest. I’ll tell your Pa tomorrow.”
I stood up and started for my room again. At the doorway, I turned around. “Uncle Johnny, I’m still mighty proud of you,” I declared. Then I smiled.
I tried to stay out of pa’s hair the next day as much as I could, but when I came home for lunch, I could tell he was happier, yet there was still a sadness in his eyes as he looked at me. I was beginning to understand why he was keeping this from me, but I didn’t feel like now was the time to tell him what I knew. I wanted to see if he would tell me on his own.
Uncle Johnny didn’t go into town that night. He stayed home and stayed sober. He told me many stories about his life with my Ma. Some of the stories brought tears to my eyes. I turned and looked at Pa who was listening intensely as well. He had a slow, easy smile on his face. I was happy to see it there. We both knew this was our last night with Uncle Johnny, so it was special.
I was allowed to stay up until 9:00 that night. Pa knew it would be a long time before I would see him again, so he allowed me to stay up late and talk to him. At one point, Uncle Johnny had made himself comfortable in the leather chair. I sat on the floor, my arms propped on his knee as I rested my chin on my arms. I just stared at him, listening to him telling me stories about him and ma getting into trouble together when they were children. I couldn’t believe it, and I told him as much. But Uncle Johnny assured me in a teasing voice that my Ma wasn’t a saint.
Pa was pleased with the stories as well. As he sent me to bed, I heard him say, “Thank you for the memories, Johnny.”
The last day I saw my Uncle Johnny was a memorable day. We sat around the table for breakfast for last time. It was our final meal together and Pa made a special meal for us. I remember Uncle Johnny stating that it would be a breakfast he’d remember during those long, quiet days that laid ahead. My Pa had looked my way when he said it, not knowing I knew the truth. “Are you nervous?” I asked him.
Uncle Johnny smiled. “I am.” He knew I was asking about more then the horse contest he was about to perform in.
Pa said we could leave the dishes for later. We had some work to do before our guests started to arrive. Uncle Johnny helped me with my chores. He worked with Duster one last time and told me that I should be able to ride him soon. My Pa assured Uncle Johnny he’d be able to take care of him now.
Our guests started arriving. Uncle Johnny went inside the corral to get ready for his final ride. I was sad for him because we both knew this could be his final rodeo act for a long time. But I was happy for him, because he was doing a really honorable thing for North Fork.
The contest started. Mr. Kemper timed how long Johnny stayed on Lucifer. I cheered him on louder than anyone else. When he made it to the thirty second mark, I cheered the loudest. “Yahoo!” I yelled. I was so proud of him as a big smile was on my face. I proudly told Pa, “He did it!”
I saw the expression on Pa’s face. He knew what was coming next. I did too, and that took a bit of the spirit out of me. Suddenly, Mr. Stacy sent his heavy to beat up on Uncle Johnny. Pa went to stop it and Uncle Johnny came over to me. I wanted to say my good-byes here. I knew that we would have to leave very soon to say good-bye, but I wanted this to be special. “Uncle Johnny, I’m happy I got to meet you. Everything Ma told me about you is true.”
“Yeah,” Uncle Johnny brushed me off. But then he turned back toward me and got down on his knees. He looked into my eyes. “Let me tell you something, Mark. You look so much like her. Your mother had something special about her that came from deep inside. She brought joy to everyone around her. Mark my boy, you have that same specialness about you. You have your mother’s spirit. Don’t ever change that.”
I nodded my head. A tear trickled down my cheek. I looked behind me and saw Pa finishing up his talking to a neighbor. I couldn’t let him see me crying. “I wish you didn’t have to go,” I said. “Having you here is like having a little bit of Ma here to.”
Uncle Johnny wiped my tear away with his thumb and smiled at me. “Being here with you is like having a little of my sister here.”
I bit my lip and turned to see Pa coming towards us. “We best get going,” Pa said.
We rode to where we would part ways. I kept a smile on my face, because that’s how I wanted to remember him. “You take good care of your pa, Mark,” Uncle Johnny said before he rode off.
“Good-bye, Uncle Johnny!” I called as he rode off. My heart was sad, but I had hope that he wouldn’t have to stay in jail for long, then he could come back and visit us. I had Duster to hold on to – that would help me when I started feeling lonesome for my Uncle Johnny.
"If Uncle Johnny sends all the Championship metals and belts that he promises, where would we put them all?" Pa suddenly asked as we watched Uncle Johnny ride up the hill.
I was proud of my Pa for wanting to protect me, but I figured it was time for me to reveal the truth.
I looked at him as I chuckled. "Where would he send them from, jail?" I smiled, letting Pa know I was okay with it.
Pa jerked his head around and stared at me in amazement. “You knew all along?”
“He told me. It wasn’t because he was drinkin’ either. Deep down, he wanted to tell me.” I stated.
“And yet you stuck by him anyhow,” Pa stated.
Didn’t Pa know I wanted to be just like him? “Didn’t you?” I asked.
Pa smiled. “Seems I’ve been sightin’ you short, son. I thought I had to keep my boy from getting’ hurt.” I watched a slow smile spread across my father’s face. Proudly, he stated, “and all the time he was a man! I’ll have to remember that!”
My heart jumped. I had made my Pa proud! I waved at Johnny as he started to ride out of sight. Then Pa and I turned our horses around and rode for home.
Oh, by the way. Ever wonder what happened to Duster? Well, you should read a story here at the ranch. It’s called “Blue Boy.” That story tells you another important lesson I learned before “Eight Hours To Die.”
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.