Night had settled on the land as I slowly rode my horse down the crooked road towards home. In the distance I heard an owl announcing she was about to start her nightly prowl. The night bugs were speaking to others in a language only they could understand. In the far-off distance I could hear a wolf howling as he prowled around for something to eat.
I watched as the sun’s last rays disappeared beyond the trees. Only tomorrow would it appear again to shine over the land. Until then…darkness was my friend.
Blue Boy slowed his pace and whinnied then. I bent over and patted him as I looked around. “Easy there, boy. It’s okay.” I consoled him in my soft gentle voice. But I sensed a change in the air.
Blue Boy suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. “Go on!” I ordered as I gave him a hard swat. But he suddenly cried out and reared back high on his hind legs. “Whoa there, boy!” I called. But he reared back again and again.
The night had suddenly quieted. The only thing I could hear was the sound of my horse. He cried and snorted as he breathed hard, and then his rear hooves struck the ground as he continued to rear back. His last throw was so powerful that I flew out of the saddle and landed on the ground. Blue Boy, happy to be rid of me, hurried away.
I shook my head. My surroundings were spinning from the knot that was forming on my head. “Be back by dark.” That’s what Pa had said just before I left for my ride. “You know how I worry.”
I looked up toward the sky. Thousands of stars twinkled above me. I lay still, hoping Blue Boy would return, but to no avail – he was gone…spooked by something unseen – something purely evil.
I bent my leg and planted one foot firmly on the ground. I braced myself and pulled myself into a standing position. My legs ached from the fall. But I knew now was no time to complain about that.
I had to get out of here…and fast! A noise sounded behind me…I froze in my footsteps, wondering what it was. I heard a cry and a rustling in some bushes. My heart began beating faster and faster.
Suddenly, I heard another loud cry. My feet froze on the ground as the cry grew louder. I could hear it moving toward me from the bushes. I spun around. My eyes grew big as a large, dark shadow came toward me. I gasped, turned, and ran. I ran faster and faster. “Pa!” I screamed. “Pa, help me!”
But Pa never came. I suddenly tripped over a log. The shadow circled me. His cry was eerie. I began shaking. Then he lunged. I closed my eyes as I felt something grab me by the arms.
“Mark! Mark!” I could hear the thing cry. It sounded like Pa. “”Mark! Wake up!”
“No! He’s after me, pa! Shoot him!” I screamed. “Shoot him!”
Suddenly, I felt something shaking me. I felt a hand lightly slapping on my cheek. My eyes fluttered open. Through the darkness I saw the concerned face of my father. I gasped for breath as Pa held me up in bed and stared at me. I was covered in a cold sweat. “It…” I swallowed as I grasped Pa by the arms. “I tried to obey you, Pa. I was on my way home when…” I stopped. I looked around the room and suddenly realized…
It was a dream. No! It was a nightmare.
Pa slowly let go of my arms and stood up. He lit the lantern and poured some fresh water for me to wash my face with, as I sat in the bed, still shaking. I couldn’t stop the shaking. “It…” I swallowed as Pa took my arm and lifted me out of bed. “It was so…so real, Pa.”
Pa helped me across the room. I dipped the cloth in the water and began washing the sweat from my face as he bent down in front of me. “You want to tell me about it?”
I nodded slightly. “There was something…something out there.” I gasped as an owl outside hooted. Pa laid a hand on my arm. “It was big and had a cry like…I don’t know what. It was awful, Pa.”
Pa sat down on the floor as he listened. He looked up into my eyes. “Mark, it was just a dream.”
I shook my head. “It was more than a dream, Pa. It was so…so real. Blue Boy reared a number of times and finally threw me.” I bent down and rubbed my legs. “They hurt from falling from Blue Boy. Oh Pa, it was more real than any dream I’ve ever had.”
Pa stood and lifted me from the chair. He helped me back to bed and drew the covers up over me. His eyes were full of concern. He sat down and lowered his face toward me. His hand brushed back my hair as if I was a six year old little boy. “Oh son…” Pa sighed deeply. “This has been a rough year for you. Sometimes a person’s fears come out ‘strange’ in our dreams. You’re still not quite over seeing that shootout in the hardware store. I wish you could get over it, but if you’re struggling with that and it makes you hesitate and think about a peaceful way to resolve your angers instead of drawing a gun, then I guess I can accept the fact that it happened in front of you.”
I knew there was more that Pa wanted to say, so I allowed him to continue.
“Before that, we had to deal with the incident with my rifle and Charlie. That took you on a long trip of guilt and regret. Guess ‘incident’ is putting that mildly. Mark, you’ve been forced to grow up quickly this year. Quicker than I ever wanted you to grow up. You’re still my ‘boy’ in so many ways, yet, you’re becoming the man that your Ma had hoped you’d be.”
“It’s been rough…” I sighed in agreement.
“Mark, because you’re having these nightmares, I think we still need to do some talking,” Pa said.
“Nightmares? But I’ve…” I started. But Pa held up his hand.
“Son, I lay awake at night listening to you mumble in your sleep. Your dreams have made you restless the past few weeks, though none of them have been as bad as this one. You still need to do some talking, so we can put this behind you and you can get back to growing up.”
“I don’t understand, Pa. I mean…I FEEL okay…most of the time.” I sighed. I hadn’t realized Pa was aware of my fears. I’d been trying so hard to truly understand the things that had happened. I don’t think I had realized my fears myself.
Pa closed his eyes. “It’s been so rough for both of us, not just you Mark. Seems you and I have had quarrel after quarrel through this year. We had disagreement after disagreement over the hotel incident…over your rifle…Then there was your saving the town and Senator Borden’s life. I’m sure that was scary for you. And before that you had to relive the memories of your mother’s death…” Pa rubbed his hand against my cheek. “It’s important we talk through your fears.”
I suddenly felt better, maybe it wasn’t so much the fact that I was having nightmares, but that subconsciously, I needed to let Pa know that I still needed him. Yes I was growing up, but deep down, I still really wanted to be his little boy. “It HAS been a rough year I guess. So many fears…so many…differences.” I looked up at Pa. “Maybe that shadow was you…maybe it was me – maybe I’m afraid of…” I stopped. “Pa, do you think that deep down I might be afraid of growing up?”
“Son, you can’t stop growing up and maybe that’s what’s really scaring you.” Pa put a hand on my shoulder. “You’ve been growing up so fast this year. The things you’ve faced, Mark…I had trials when I was growing up, but never like you have.” Pa shook his head. “This is practically your first year of real ‘manhood,’ and you’ve seemed to experience so much turmoil. I’m struggling inside, seeing you suffering so much, son. You’ve been through so much as a young man, I think you might really be scared of what’s to come once you are full grown. Remember, as long as we keep talking we’ll be able to fix whatever comes up. Just don’t shut me out, Mark. Promise me whatever’s bothering you…whatever feelings from these past incidences come back to haunt you – you’ll talk them out with me. Just because we’ve talked about what has happened doesn’t mean that everything is right. When you least expect it, memories will pop into that brain of yours and you might start thinking, what if?”
I lowered my head. “I know what you mean.”
“Care to talk about it now?”
“Sometimes, I get to thinking on things and I can’t stop them, Pa. Like yesterday…I thought about Marty. I wondered…what if you had listened to me? What if I had been able to convince you that…” I shuddered.
“That’s what I’m trying to say, son. Don’t you know that’s why I’m here? To help you with these things?” I nodded again. “I know you want to think well of everyone you meet and it’s a wonderful trait, but I’ve had a few more years experience in dealing with people. I don’t think my conscience would have allowed you to change my mind when it came to Marty.”
I sighed. “Then the other day…I started wondering what my life would be like if…if you HAD come down with small pox.”
“You see? This is why I didn’t voice these – because you think they sound silly! I feel like a little kid who can’t handle problems!”
“They are not silly Mark. You’re a fourteen year old boy who needs the guidance of a father. You need reassurance.” Pa again reached over and touched my shoulder. “That is my number one job. Nothing I do is more important.”
“Oh Pa…” I sighed as I snuggled further down under the covers. Pa’s hand rested on my shoulder. “I should be able to…”
“Whoa there, son.” Pa hushed me. “These are not ‘kid’ problems, it’s not like you’re afraid there’s a ghost in the closet like you were when you were three. These are man-sized problems you’ve been dealing with. I’ve watched you suffering and wonder how…how all of this is really affecting you. It’s been so very, very hard for you, honestly, for both of us. My heart aches to see you going through all this. See parents don’t have all the answers, and sometimes, we don’t even know the questions. That’s why what’s happened to you this year has been so hard on me too. I prayed that God would have given me the insight to keep you from all this.”
“I understand Pa and I’m okay, at least I will be, as long as you’re here to help me through it all.” Pa raised his eyebrows at me. “But…” I closed my eyes. “I wouldn’t mind if you want to hold onto me a little tighter…just until I get a little more grown up.”
“Thank you, son.” Pa remained on the side of the bed. I closed my eyes and slowly went to sleep. Pa never left my side.
When I came out of the bedroom the next morning, I yawned into my fist. Pa sat breakfast down on the table and smiled. “I’ll do your chores this morning, son. We were up half the night talking.” He watched me in silence as I started to eat. “How do you feel?”
“Pa?” I lifted my eyes up to him and saw the sincere expression on his face. “Thanks for talking with me last night. I’m coming to accept that I can’t change what’s happened in the past. But I still feel like a young man with problems.”
Pa smiled. “Alright, son. You are a young man with a big problem – you have a father who cares about you.” Pa raised his eyebrows. “Now…how do you feel?”
I laughed. “I’m okay…for now but…” I stopped.
“Well, go on.”
“No…It’s okay.” I started to stand, but Pa placed a hand my arm.
“You don’t move from this table until we finish talking, son,” Pa declared in a very stern voice. I sat back down and sighed. “I can write Mr. Griswald a note to excuse you for being late, if needed. Now…out with it.”
“I’m just…afraid of…” I swallowed and shook my head again.
“Come on, son. Tell me.” I lifted my head and looked into his eyes. “Tell me.”
“I’m afraid of disappointing you.” I lowered my eyes.
“I see.” Pa cleared his throat. I lifted my eyes to him. “If you think you’ll never disappoint me again…never anger me again…never hurt me again…then you are deceiving yourself, son. Don’t be afraid of it.”
“Pa…after Charlie died I…” I licked my lips. “I saw such disappointment in your eyes. I never…ever want to see that look again.” Pa didn’t say anything. He just looked at me. “I was afraid that you hated me for what I did.”
“Mark!” I jumped at the sharpness in his voice. “No matter what you EVER do…I could never stop loving you, much less hate you! You are my son and I LOVE you! Yes, I was disappointed! You’d broken one…no…several of my rules and found yourself in trouble. Yes, I was angry. Yes I was hurt. But I’m not anymore. We’ve moved passed that. I did my fatherly duty of helping you move on…at least I thought I had.”
“You have. I just…” I sighed. “I remember when I was a kid and I had a problem. I’d be punished then it would go away. But the problems this year, the memories just keeping…remembering…they just don’t seem to go away.”
“They will, son. You just keep talking to me…keep hoping and thinking like that. As long as you remember to be afraid of disappointing me or afraid of angering me – those things will remind you that YOU have the power to make those things happen – or not to happen.”
I smiled. “You know Pa…just talking to you about it makes it all seem…so much easier to accept!”
“Good. Now get to school!”
After school that day I was walking along the side of the building when I suddenly heard Pa’s voice. It was laced with fear. “What? Mark!” I heard the panic in Pa’s voice. “Oh dear God…he should be on his way home from school by now!”
I hurried out from the side of the building. “I’m right here, Pa!”
Pa turned. I saw his panicked face just before it was replaced with relief. “Oh, thank you God!” Pa ran over to me and grabbed my shoulders. “What are you doing here, son?”
I looked at Micah, then turned back toward Pa. “I’m sorry I worried you Pa, but…I came in to get the mail. What are you doing in town? I thought I was supposed to get home to help you with the cattle this afternoon?”
“Razor threw a shoe.”
“You look upset! Is something wrong?”
Pa turned and looked at Micah. He turned back toward me. “A…” Pa swallowed. “A cougar has been spotted around here, son. A stranger on the road toward our ranch was found mauled this morning. You can’t even recognize him.”
I cocked my head to one side. “Then…how do you know it’s a stranger?”
Pa turned and looked at Micah. He shook his head at me. “You know…I declare, you’re getting smarter every day!” Pa smiled. “There was a horse nearby that had also been mauled. We didn’t recognize the brand on him either.”
“If you need to stay here in town and help Micah, I can go home and-“
“No!” Pa shouted. He sighed and put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry son.” Pa turned again and looked at Micah. “I think I’d prefer you to stay close to me until this cougar is found. It’s nothing against you, son, but I want to protect you.”
I nodded. After our conversation from last night and this morning, I knew both of us needed Pa to protect me right now. I’d had enough growing up experience for awhile. “What about school?”
Pa raised an eyebrow. “Well…until this cougar’s caught I’ll have to ride in with you then come in and meet you. I just don’t like the idea of..”
I suddenly gasped. “Pa!” I began shaking from the realization. “Pa!” I said louder this time.
Pa stared at me. “What’s wrong son?”
“The…the nightmare! Something was chasing me last night. It made a terrible sound and…” I stopped.
“It was just a nightmare son. I…” But Pa’s voice trailed off. He too was thinking on my dream from the night before. “Micah, tomorrow I’ll trail that cougar. Until then, tell everyone to stay off the North road! I don’t want to hear about any more dead bodies being found mauled by cougars. In fact…it may be a good idea to cancel school and church until this cougar’s caught.”
Pa started across the street. I started to follow him. Pa turned. “Stay at Micah’s, son.”
“Pa…I want to come. This is my problem too.” I lifted my eyebrows. Pa nodded.
The three of us walked down the street and past the church. I stood beside Pa as he knocked on the door to the school house. Mr. Griswald came to the door with a stack of papers in his hand. “Lucas!” he moved from the door and motioned us inside.
“No,I think its best we talk out here. Listen, Stevan, we have a problem. A stranger was found mauled on the North road, he must have been mauled last night. It was a cougar.”
“Oh…I’m sorry to hear that.” Mr. Griswald looked down and shook his head. “I’m assuming you’re not here to ask me to join the posse and go after this animal.”
Pa chuckled. “You’re right. I’m here to ask you a favor. You see, as a father, I for one don’t want my son anywhere without me…least on the North road…until this cat is caught. I’m going out tormorrow to look for this cat but…well, I was wondering if you could cancel classes until this beast is killed. The children are in danger.”
“Well…” Mr. Griswald took off his glasses and put them in his pocket. “I don’t know much about these animals, Lucas, but if its for the safety of the children…”
“Stevan,” Micah said. “Nils is harnessing up a couple of teams of horses and hitching them to wagons, Lucas and I plan to see all the children home and inform their parents.”
“You know I have promotion testing coming up soon…next week in fact.”
Pa stood and clinched his fists. “I don’t think the cougar got your itinerary, Mr. Griswald.”
“That’s true.” Mr. Griswald finally nodded. “Alright. But I hope it’s not for too long.”
“So do I,” Pa nodded.We turned from the school and walked down the steps. I could see Pa working his jaw. “Something wrong?” I asked.
That one word spoke volumes. We walked in silence. When we entered the hotel and sat down for lunch, I spoke my peace. “Pa?” Pa turned and looked at me. “Uh…how many of my incidents this year could have been lessened if you had been completely open and honest with me?”
“Huh?” Pa raised his eyebrows and stared at me. I raised my eyebrows right back. Pa tapped the table as he thought on that. “Alright son.” Pa sighed. “A cougar is a very dangerous animal. They have a way of sneaking up on a person without you even knowing they are there. I’m so tempted to limit your outside time at all. I want so badly to protect you from this, like I used to when you were little.”
“But you won’t…right, Pa?” I asked.
“This cougar could be anywhere, son. He could be prowling our yard as you walk to the outhouse. He could be out on the range when you’re checking the cattle. He could be by the barn when you’re fetching the eggs. He could…
“He could be a long way away from here by now. He could as easily attack you, as he can me.” I raised my eyebrows at him again. I found myself putting my own hand on Pa’s. “Pa, last night I told you I wanted to take a break from growing up, and I do. But I don’t want to move backwards either.” I sighed. “Tomorrow…I want to go with you.”
“No!” Pa answered firmly.
“Pa…you just said that they can sneak up on you! You don’t have eyes in the back of your head. I’m going with you.”
Pa saw the determination in my eyes. He finally sighed. “Alright, son. You’ll go with me. Right now, you stay here and help Mr. Griswald get the children ready. Micah and I need to get to the livery and then WE’LL get these children home.” Pa grinned at me.
I woke up early the next morning to hear pounding on the door. I sat up in bed to see Pa quickly pulling on his pants. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know, son. Go back to sleep. It’s only 4:00.” But I couldn’t sleep. I followed Pa into the front room as I pulled my pants on.
“Lucas! Lucas, it’s terrible!” I walked up behind Pa to see Mr. Toomey standing there. He grasped Pa’s forearms.
“Toomey, what are you doing out at this time of night?” Pa asked. “Don’t you know there’s a cougar out..”
I gasped as the color drained from Mr. Toomey’s face. Pa hurried and sat him down at the table. “Mark, get some water now!” he ordered.
I ran to the kitchen and primed the pump. Then I hurried over and handed Pa the glass of water. Pa coaxed Mr. Toomey into drinking some. “What’s wrong with you? What’s going on?”
Toomey put the heels of his hands to his eyes. He shook his head from side to side. “I was…going home…” He swallowed. “I was late because I…I…had to get the coffin done and I…” He grabbed the glass and took another drink of water. “The screaming…it was te…terrible!”
“Screaming?” Pa turned and glanced at me. “What screaming?”
“A man…he was screaming! ‘Help me!’ Then I heard him scream, ‘Ow! Ow!” Then this blood-curdling scream…It was just…just…” Mr. Toomey buried his head in his hands and shook his head. “It was just so…awful!”
“What was it? Do you know?”
I had refilled his glass. Mr. Toomey took it from me and took another long drink of water before he answered. “Then I heard the scream. I’d heard that scream before. It was a…a…cou…cou…”
“Cougar?” Pa asked.
Mr. Toomey nodded as he drank some more of the water. He handed me the glass and I went and filled it up again. Mr. Toomey swallowed. “I heard the man’s last scream, then all was quiet. As I got closer, I shot my gun in the air. It was a cat…a big, big cat!”
“You saw it?” Pa asked suddenly. Mr. Toomey nodded. “Where did he run to?”
“Back into the woods…I don’t…” Toomey looked over Pa’s shoulder at me. “The boy…he shouldn’t hear this.”
Pa turned. He opened his mouth to tell me to leave, but then he nodded. “He can handle it. Tell me.”
“The sight was awful, Lucas! It was just…just…awful! You see, the moon was full and I…” Mr. Toomey shook his head as he pressed his hands against his forehead. “Oh…It’s a sight I wish I could get out of my head!”
“What is it?”
“I couldn’t recognize him from the face, LucasI…I…” Suddenly, Mr. Toomey hurried into the kitchen and heaved into the sink. I’d never seen a man so sickened from a sight. Pa held him from behind as he heaved until there was nothing left. Pa sat him back down in the chair and told him to put his head between his legs and take deep breaths through his nose.
When Mr. Toomey finally calmed down, Pa said, “Do you know who he was?” Mr. Toomey nodded.
“Who?” Pa asked, glancing at me.
“It was…it was…” Mr. Toomey stopped. He swallowed then pressed his hands to his eyes and he began weeping. “Oh, Dear God in Heaven! Oh help me!” he cried.
“Who was it, Toomey? Who?” Pa pleaded again.
Mr. Toomey slowly lifted his head from his hands. Tears lay on his cheeks as he looked right at Pa. “Decovan!”
The name seemed to echo through the room. I could hear my heart beating. The name didn’t sink in for me just yet. I hard Pa’s sudden intake of breath. He turned and walked to the kitchen as he tried to regain composure. But he didn’t make it. I heard Pa’s fist hit the wall with a hard boom. I watched as he lifted his head toward the ceiling and take a deep breath. “Oh, Dear God!” he breathed. I heard the sobs.
My mind raced. “No…no…” I mumbled. I felt my knees buckle. I fell to the floor on my knees. My hands pressed against the wood. “No…You…You have to be wrong!” I shook my head as everything seemed to leave my senses. I couldn’t smell anything…I couldn’t see…I couldn’t hear…”No…I saw him yesterday. He was…he was in the restaurant eating.” I tried to lift my head but couldn’t. I stared at the floor, but couldn’t see it. “He was…he was…
I suddenly could hear Pa as he said, “Are you sure?”
“Yes…” Mr. Toomey answered with a broken voice. I heard footsteps as they stepped across the floor. I felt Pa’s arms go around me as he wept. I was shaking from my head to my toe.
“No…it can’t…it can’t…”
I suddenly felt like I was smothering. I shoved away what I thought was the truth. In reality it was my Pa, but my senses were gone…I crawled to the front door and onto the porch. Then I remembered that I had feet. I stood and ran out into the middle of the yard. Then I collapsed as I took in deep, cleansing breaths. “Oh God! Oh God!” I prayed.
Sam Decovan had been a friend of ours for years. He was one of the finest ranchers around here and Pa held him high in respect. My mind raced at the memories of seeing this man in our home. “No!” I suddenly cried. I buried my head in my hands and wept bitterly. “No!”
I again felt the truth envelope me. I shoved at it, but it held onto me tight. I began banging on its chest. “No! It’s not true! It’s not!” I screamed as I continued to slam my fists against its chest.
“Oh Mark! It’s is, son! It is!”
I suddenly realized it was Pa who was clinging to me. I continued to bang against his chest. “Let me go!” I cried. “Let me go!”
“I can’t, Mark! I can’t!” Pa cried as he forced me into an embrace. I tried to fight against him, but he was stronger. My grief won out and I collapsed against him and cried as my body shook with sobs.
We both cried. “God, help us!” I heard Pa pray then. “Dear God, help us!”
I grew quiet as Pa rocked me back and forth. His arms didn’t move from me. They stayed securely around me as I continued to allow the truth to take over. I suddenly felt the dirt under my knees and knew I was outside on the ground.
“I’m sorry, Lucas. I…I tried to warn you to…” Mr. Toomey’s voice was so quiet – still laced with remaining grief.
“Its better he knows the truth!” Pa declared as he continued to hold me. I grew quiet as I listened. I didn’t want Pa’s arms to leave me yet. I felt so safe here. “He’s a man. He can accept it.”
At those words, I lifted my head and stared into his eyes. “How?” I asked suddenly. “How?”
“You just do, Mark.” Pa nodded. “You do because you have to.”
I laid my head back against Pa’s chest and cried the last remaining tears. Pa finally broke the embrace. He stood and coaxed me to my feet. “Let’s get back inside, son.” He kept his arm around my shoulders and we walked inside. He led me to a chair and sat me down. I buried my head in my hands as I continued to grieve. I heard Pa go into the kitchen. I heard him pouring something and then I heard him lighting the fire in the stove.
There was silence in the house for several minutes as all three of us came to terms with the truth. Finally, Pa sat a cup in front of me. “Here’s some warm milk, son. Drink it.”
I slowly picked up the glass and began drinking from it. I heard Pa quietly ask, “Where is he?”
Mr. Toomey turned and looked at me. Quietly, he answered. “I left him there, Lucas. I was so…so…”
Pa walked to the door. He took his rifle. I leapt from the table and ran to him. “No, Pa!” I cried. “No!”
“Mark, he has to be buried. I have to get him to town!” Pa declared. He shook my arm off and hurried into the bedroom to get a blanket from the closet. “We’ll wrap him in this.”
“Pa, please! Please don’t go out there! That’s the cat from my dreams! He’s going to kill you!” I screamed.
“No, son. I’ll be okay,” Pa answered. “I’ll be back.”
“No!” I begged again.
Pa turned to me and grabbed my shoulders. He gave me one hard shake. “Mark! I understand your fears, but we can’t stop living. We have to do what’s right!” I froze and looked into his eyes. Pa’s voice calmed. “I have to get his body before the cougar comes back. He deserves to be saved from anymore... He deserves to be respected.” I shook my head slowly. “I have to do this, son. I have to.”
“Pa, the image…Mr. Toomey said that…” The thought of my Pa having to see something like this was horrid. That bothered me more than Pa running into the cougar. “You’ll have that image impressed in your mind for the rest of your life, Pa!”
“Son, a man…” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “A man often has to do things that he doesn’t want to do. But he does them because it’s his duty. That’s also part of being a man.” Pa patted my shoulder.
Then he walked out the door.
I stood and stared at the closed door. Slowly, I turned and walked back to the table where my glass of warm milk still sat. I picked it up and slowly began drinking it. Walking into the kitchen, I looked out the window and saw the moon shining bright. Flashes of the thing chasing me raced through my head as I stared out into the moonlit yard. I closed my eyes to shake it out, but it was still there.
Slowly, I sat down my glass of milk. The image flashed again. I let go of the glass with a gasp. The glass fell to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces.
I paced the length of the front room and kitchen over and over until I thought a hole was going to appear in the floor under my feet. I watched out the window the entire time as the sun slowly made its way over the horizon. It was light now. Pa would get a good image of what Mr. Decovan looked like. It had to be horrid…fearful! Oh, how can he ever go on after seeing such a horrid sight? I gasped at the prospect.
I heard the rooster crow. Then I heard a horse whinny from the barn. I had to go feed the animals, but fear gripped my body. What if that…thing was out there? I shuddered at the thought.
But ten minutes later, I was fully dressed and on my way out to the barn. Before I left, I looked down toward Pa’s rifle case. I saw my rifle there and stared at it. I hadn’t touched it since… Charlie… I turned and looked toward the box of bullets on the mantle. Then I looked back down at my rifle. I didn’t hesitate another second as I reached for the box and then for my rifle. As I loaded my rifle I thought to myself, “Pa, I know I haven’t earned your permission to carry this, but I think you’ll understand,” and prepared to head to the barn.
I held tight to my rifle, my finger on the trigger as I slowly walked across the yard. Every noise…every little sound made my head dart around. My heart relaxed as I opened the door of the barn and hurried inside.
I sat down my rifle and hurried up to Blue Boy. I patted his head and greeted him warmly before getting the oats. I fed Blue Boy, and Razor. Pa had taken the wagon so the other two stalls were empty. I grabbed the chicken feed. As I held the bowl of feed in my hands, I lost my smile as Pa’s words echoed in my head. “He could attack you when you’re feeding the chickens.” I turned and looked at the rifle again. Hurrying to it, I put it under my arm and quickly hurried to the chicken coop.
Suddenly, a loud noise sounded behind me. The bowl of chicken feed crashed to the ground. In one swift motion, I readied my rifle and spun around. Nothing was there. I looked all around me. I HAD heard a noise…maybe it was my own fear crying.
I hurried to the barn, refilled the bowl with feed, and went to the chicken coop.
What would Pa say if he could see me now? Boy…he would be proud of his young man! I was scared of myself!
As I was leaving the chicken coop, I heard the pigs snorting for their morning breakfast from behind the barn. My hand paused on the coop knowing that they could wait until Pa got home.
But I was a man now. I wouldn’t allow my boy-sized fears to keep from doing the job. I hurried into the barn and filled the tub with ears of corn. Then I grabbed my rifle and went to the back.
“Here ya go, you two!” I called to the pigs. They thanked me by snorting back at me. I watched them eat.
Suddenly, something moved in the bushes. Again, I readied my rifle and spun around. And again, nothing was there. I looked all around me.
I still had to milk the cow. I hurried to the corral and grabbed the milk cow by the rope. “Come on Bessie!” I called to her. “Come on!”
She didn’t want to move. Even she could feel something in the air. I pulled on her even harder. “I said come on you dumb ol’ cow!” I grunted again as I tried to move her, and again she let me know she wasn’t going to budge.
I swallowed at the realization. I tied the rope to the corral fence and nodded. “Alright. Then I’ll milk ya where you stand!” I hurried into the barn and got the milking stool and bucket. Then I proceeded to milk her. My rifle sat securely on my lap. A noise sounded behind me. I readied my rifle as I stood and spun around.
I stood face to face with the culprit. It wasn’t a cougar.
It was a skunk!
I fired my rifle and killed him before he sprayed me. Then I closed my eyes as the gunshot echoed. But I guess I was a second too late as the air started to smell. “Moooooo!” Bessie cried.
I ran to the side of the barn and pressed my hand against the wall. Then I took in deep breaths of fresh air.
The rapid sound of a team sounded behind me. “Mark! Mark!” I heard Pa shouting in a panic as he raced up to me. I heard the corral gate open. I felt Pa’s hands on my shoulder from behind.
There was silence.
“I shot him, Pa! I shot my fears.” I pointed to the skunk. “It was just a stupid skunk about to attack me!”
Pa stayed silent as he tried to bring his own breathing back to normal. I heard something else in Pa’s voice, I looked up, Pa gave a laugh as he said, “Sometimes our fears aren’t as big as we think they are, son.” He stood waving his hand in front of his face.
I turned and looked at Pa. We stood there and stared into each other’s eyes. We both knew that’s what the nightmare was all about. I had come to realize that no matter how old a man gets, he still has fears. I had killed my fear. I laughed back as I spoke. “Well Pa…” I swallowed. “I sure hope you didn’t have your heart set on milk today.” I pointed to the milk pail overturned. We smiled as we made our way back into the house.
I sat my rifle down by the door. “And I know I didn’t have your permission to to carry my rifle... I’m sorry.”
Pa reached past me and picked my rifle up. “I’m not, son. You just showed me that you are ready to start using it again.”
I gave my head a fast nod. “I sure am glad I had it! You wouldn’t have allowed me back inside otherwise!”
“You still have to contend with Bessie. I think she might appreciate a good scrubbing.”
We chuckled, then I sobered. “How did things go?”
Pa turned from me as he laid my rifle back down in its place. “We’re going to have to build you a case to hold your own rifle now, son.”
I turned and put a hand on his shoulder. “Pa…tell me.”
He led me to the table. We sat down. Pa looked into my eyes and there I saw the image of a man who had just seen something horrific. Pa nodded. “It was Sam.” His voice broke and I put my hand on his shoulder. “Poor…” Pa’s eyes filled with tears. “Poor Sam…” he whispered.
I put my arms around his neck and drew him toward me as he cried over the image he had been forced to see. “Did you…” I swallowed. “I mean, did anyone else see…”
Pa straightened up and shook his head. “I told Micah we were sure. Micah left it at that. Toomey’s working on a coffin right now. We’ll have his funeral as soon as..his wife…”
My eyes widened. “His wife! Oh Pa, I-“
Pa put a hand on my arm. “Micah said he’d be discreet. Toomey’s trying to hurry with the coffin so he can close it before she comes to town and insist on seeing the body. If need be, Micah will tell her it’s a better this way, but we hope she’ll accept it without being told the details.”
Even though it was Friday morning, Pa reached for his Bible. Neither of us felt like eating. Not only were the images in our heads keeping the hunger away, but we were too saddened. Our hearts were too heavy. Pa opened his Bible to Psalms, and in a not-so-strong voice, started reading.
As he read, his voice became stronger. Then he finally closed his Bible, grabbed my hand, and closed his eyes. He prayed a long, heart-felt prayer as I echoed his thoughts.
When we were finished, Pa stood up. “I need to fix you some breakfast.” Pa started toward the kitchen.
“No sir…I’m not…” I started.
Pa turned and looked at me. “I need to do this, Mark. Please understand.”
We peered into each other’s eyes. I nodded. “Okay, Pa.” After breakfast was fixed, he watched me as I ate. He couldn’t even drink coffee. I knew that my fear had come true – he had horrid visions of the results of the cougar attack in his head.
I sopped up the yoke with my last bite of bread and popped it in my mouth. “I wish you could eat, Pa.”
“I will…maybe this afternoon, son.”
“I hope I never…ever…have to see something that terrible!” I declared.
Pa was uneasy. Neither of us wanted to leave the shelter of our home, but we needed to check the cattle. Pa stood and paced the length of the front room as I washed the dishes. He walked over and picked up his rifle and walked outside. From the window, I watched as he worked on cleaning it.
I finished the dishes and grabbed my hat as I walked out onto the porch. Pa fired his rifle a few times. Then he stood. He started down the steps, stopped, and turned to look at me. “Uh…Mark…” Pa scratched under his nose. “You know I’d feel better if you stayed here while I checked the cattle.”
I nodded. “I know.”
“But you uh…won’t…Is that what you’re telling me?”
I nodded. “Yes sir.” Pa lowered his head and sighed. “Pa, I’d do nothing but worry about you and it’s like you said…fear doesn’t do us any good. Like I’m trying to face my fears, you need to face your own. And one of those fears is my growing up too fast. Sometimes, that’s part of life. That’s what you’ve been trying to tell me all along.”
We walked to the barn together and saddled our horses. Pa waited for me to pull up along side him. “Stay close to me, son,” Pa ordered. I rode onto the range with him to check the cattle. Suddenly, I heard a cow crying. Not thinking, I left Pa’s side and rode over toward the cow. Traces of blood were seen. I followed the blood. Then suddenly…”Pa!” I screamed.
Pa turned Razor and raced toward me as fast as he could. “Mark! I told you not to live my side! Didn’t I?” I gasped as he yelled. “Well, didn’t I?”
“But Pa!” I started to argue.
“No back talk, boy!” Pa pointed a finger at me. “If you can’t follow orders, I’ll leave you at home! Do you hear…” His words died off as he followed my eyes. There in the brush was a calf…dead. “Pa, is it…”
“Stay in the saddle, son,” Pa demanded. He climbed from Razor and walked over to the calf. I watched as he bent down beside it and groaned. “There’s not much left.”
There were no tracks. “Pa, I…”
“Sh!” Pa held up his hand to silence me. With his rifle in hand, he turned one way then the other. “He’s been here, son. He’s been right here.” There was a sudden eeriness in the air. I shuddered as I felt it. Pa turned and looked at me, and I could see that he felt the same way – there was something…something out there. We could feel it. It was quiet and still, but it was there.
Pa mounted his horse once again. He slowly rode across the range looking this way and that. “How…” I swallowed. “How long ago?”
“I can’t really tell, son.” Pa turned and looked at me. “I’m guessing it’s been within the last four hours or so.”
“He’s out there somewhere, Pa. He’s there just…just waiting for his next...victim.”
Pa turned and looked at me. “Mark, don’t think like that. Don’t talk at all. I want to listen.”
We rode for two hours over our range, through the canyons and up gorges. But we found nothing – not even a trace.
Since I had a late breakfast, Pa didn’t suggest we stop for lunch. I worried about him a little, but he told me he was okay. He’d been putting on a little extra weight anyhow. We spent all afternoon hunting for the cat that was killing so many. But there was no sign of him. Not even a trace.
My stomach suddenly growled. Pa turned and looked at me. “Well…I guess we should quit for the night. We’ll try again tomorrow.” I didn’t want to quit, but Pa wanted to be inside by dark.
“Pa, don’t they usually hunt at night?” I asked.
“No.” Pa answered as he looked around. We slowly rode back toward the ranch. “Stay close, son. Stay really close.” Pa moved his head one way then the other. He looked all around him just in case. “We have to get back before it’s…”
Suddenly, we heard him. Pa whirled his horse around as the cat cried. I turned and looked with him, but we could see nothing. “He’s out there, Pa…” I whispered in a shaky voice. “He’s out there just…just waiting…”
“Yeah.” Pa looked at me. “Let’s ride for home, son. He’s in those woods over there.”
“Shouldn’t we go after him, Pa?” I asked.
“No. Not tonight, son. The sun is starting to set and I don’t want caught out here after dark.”
The cat even had my Pa spooked. We rode for home.
As we unsaddled our horses that evening, I grew quiet. The sun was going down and I feared that something bad would happen again tonight. I felt Pa watching me but he stayed silent. We stopped by the smokehouse and Pa got a couple steaks down. I was happy to see he’d eat tonight. Then we made our way inside. The whole time, Pa kept his finger on the trigger.
We were both spooked.
As Pa worked on supper, I stood in the doorway and stared out as the sun slowly made its way behind the mountain. Soon, a blanket of silver lay over the sky. I closed my eyes, not happy that darkness was once again slowly approaching North Fork.
From behind me, I felt hands on my shoulders. “I remember when you were three years old, son. You were so afraid of the dark. You would cry and cry and beg your mother and I to stay with you while you fell asleep. Do you remember what I told you?”
“No sir,” I answered as I swallowed hard.
“I told you that the best way to get over the fear is to face it. Your mother hated listening to you cry in the darkness, but it was only a few nights before you conquered your fear. Every night, though, before I blew out the lamp, I’d make you look under the bed with me, in the closet, and out the window to show you nothing was there. Sometimes, I’d have to come in four…five times a night and do the same thing over and over with you before you finally settled down and went to sleep.” Pa stopped. I thought on that for a few moments. Then Pa spoke near my ear. “It wasn’t the darkness you were afraid of, son. It was what was IN the darkness.” Pa turned me around and got eye-level with me. “But just remember that whatever is out there during the night…is there during the day.”
I started to turn back around, but Pa held his hand firmly on my arm. “I told you this has been a rough year. I thought I could protect you from any more growing up, but I can’t, Mark…I just…” Pa sighed. “…can’t.”
He led me to the table. After a blessing, we started eating. It wasn’t until after the dishes were washed that I was ready to talk. Pa was sitting on the front porch smoking his cigar as he always did. I walked to the doorway, but didn’t step out.
Pa turned and held out an arm to me. “Come here, Mark.”
“I’m just looking from here.”
Pa moved over on the step and patted it. “Sit with me, son.”
I slowly made my way out and sat down beside him. Pa put his arm around my shoulder as he continued smoking his cigar. He studied me carefully. Then he spoke. “Tell me.”
I turned and looked at him. “Tell you what?”
“You fears…your thoughts…things that are bothering you.”
“I’m just so afraid, Pa.” I shuddered.
“Of what?” Pa asked gently.
“Well…I don’t know…exactly.” I looked out over the yard. “I keep hearing the sound of that shot I fired this morning. It echoes in my head over and over and…”
“It’s the first shot you fired since the accident, son.” Pa squeezed my shoulder. “It’ll take time. Healing is sometimes more painful than the sickness – especially when it’s the person that caused the sickness.” I nodded, thankful for Pa’s bluntness.
I looked out straight ahead, but I could feel Pa studying me. “What else?”
I turned and looked at Pa. “How can you tell?”
“Son, I know you inside and out. I can always sense when you are troubled. What else is bothering you?”
“The cougar.” I turned and looked at Pa. “I’m so afraid that…that we’re going to get another late-night or early-morning visit. This time it could be Freddie or Micah or…Lou…” I swallowed. “I wonder who the cougar’s next victim is going to be. How many lives with the cougar destroy tonight? How much pain will he cause before he’s killed?”
“Who says there has to be another victim?” Pa asked. “Son, you’re buying fears. It’s one thing to be fearful…like this morning when you were doing your chores. But this sort of fear will cause nothing but worry and a sleepless night. Micah told me this morning, he’d be riding all around warning people not to leave their houses until this cougar’s killed. The town’s in shock over Sam’s death. I don’t think any of our North Fork citizens will be out on the road tonight.”
“The more I think about it, Pa…the more I think that…well, that my fear isn’t the cougar…or the rifle…its adulthood. It’s such a scary place to be.”
“It’s a good place to be.”
I smiled. “I just can’t believe I spent so many years complaining about your protecting me and trying to keep me from growing up too fast. Now all of a sudden, I seemed to be getting hit left and right with man-sized problems. Some days I find myself wishing I was that little boy who had to be watched and protected all the time. I never realized just how many things you protected me from.”
“Like this morning?” Pa asked. “I’ve always allowed you to hear the truth, but the truth as I thought you needed to hear it. Son, a year ago you would have never been allowed to stay and hear the cold, hard truth like Toomey told it. But it’s time you learn how things really are. Then we talk them through like we’re doing now. It’s manhood.” Pa grew quiet then. He threw his cigar down. “Well…we’ll have to track down that cougar tomorrow.”
I heard the dreadfulness in his voice. “I feel safer with you, Pa.”
“You know I don’t want you to go. You know I want you to stay here, at the ranch, where you’ll be safe.”
I nodded. “But you know what I have to do, Pa. It’s manhood.”
Pa narrowed his eyes at me. Then he slowly shook his head. “You’re using my words against me, son.” Pa patted my shoulder. “Well…you better get to bed.
That night, I had no nightmares. When I woke up the next morning, I asked Pa how I slept. He said I didn’t stir all night. I wondered how he knew that if he had slept.
There was a eerie silence as I sat down at the table. Pa sat the food in front of me then sat down himself. I listened to his quiet prayer as he prayed for our safety. Then we ate in silence. Neither of us wanted to say anything. After I finished eating, Pa picked up the Bible and read from Psalms again. I heard the fear in his voice as he began reading. And again, the words from the Bible strengthened him.
Pa readied his rifle and fired off shots to make sure it still worked okay. Then he stuffed shells in his saddle bag. He turned and looked at me as I laid down the dishtowel. We went outside to work on the chores – side by side.
We spent most of the morning traveling. Pa was nervous as he looked one way then the other. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t around. We rode in silence just in case we heard the noise of the cougar.
Suddenly, we approached a rider. The rider was upset and excited. Pa stopped beside him. “Something wrong, mister?”
The man gasped. “I just came up on a cou…cou…cou…”
“A cougar?” Pa asked excitedly. The man nodded. “Probably the one we’re looking for. Where?” The man pointed down the road. He ran off toward some rocks about two miles that way!”
“Are you hurt?” Pa asked then. The man seemed shaken. The man shook his head. “Alright. Get yourself to some shelter! This cat has already killed two men!” Pa turned Blue Boy back toward the road. “Come on, son!”
We raced off in the direction the cougar had last been spotted. Razor was really skittish, which made Blue Boy a bit nervous. As we got to the place the cougar had been spotted, Razor wasn’t cooperation much at all, but Pa kept a firm rein on him and let him know he was still in control.
Then we stopped. Finally, we got a break. Pa dismounted his horse and bent down to look into the dirt. There was a big footprint. “Cougar tracks,” Pa declared. I knew there were other cougars that lived around here, but the one we were on the hunt for was a mean cuss and deserved to be killed before he hurt anyone else. Pa thought it could be the one that killed Mr. Decovan.
Pa studied the fresh tracks. The led just down the path. He figured that’s where the cat was. “Can I go with ya?” I asked. I hated the fact of him going in there alone.
“No, you stay with the horses.” I didn’t want to do that and Pa could tell. I could see the worry and concern on his face. We were both pretty shaken from this cougar. “I won’t go far, son. I’ll keep you in sight. You’ll be safer that way.”
I knew Pa was again treating me like a boy instead of a man. I had offered earlier to bring my rifle, but I’d gotten a firm no. I could see the worry on Pa’s face and didn’t want to cause him more arguing with him. So I stayed silent.I watched as Pa slowly made his way down the hill. He looked one way and the other. I led the horses over to some trees and waited. Pa stopped at the bottom of the hill, turned and waved at me. I waved back. Then I turned and walked to sit down by some boulders. I knew Pa told me to stay by the horses, but I was pretty confident he was on the cougar’s trail.
It never occurred to me the cougar would double back.
It never occurred to me Pa could no longer see me.
It never occurred to me that…that in mere moments, I could become the cougar’s next meal.
Because you see, when I was with my Pa, I felt pretty safe. He had his rifle and told me he was going to keep an eye on me. He’d only have to turn and shoot.
Suddenly, I heard a piercing cry from behind me. Fear gripped me as I turned from where I was sitting. I stood and looked up. There in the tree was one of the biggest cougars I’d ever laid my eyes on! Fear gripped every little bitty peace of me. My throat grew dry as I stared at the animal who had already mauled two people to their death.
The dream I had a few nights ago suddenly raced through my head. The same fear was inside me. I was again alone without anyone around me.
But this time, Pa was there.
The cougar screamed over and over as I tried to find my voice.
“PA!” I screamed as I stared at the cougar. The cougar screamed again. In a matter of seconds, he would jump on me. “PA!” I screamed again. The cat stretched out, prepared to jump.
Just like my dream, Pa didn’t come! I closed my eyes and braced myself for the attack that would happen in a second. “PA!”
The cat screamed.
The rifle fired.
The cougar leapt from the tree and ran off.
I stared into the direction the cougar had run off in. I was shaking from my stupid head to my toes. I didn’t turn toward Pa. I just stared.
Pa ran up behind me. “I told you to stand over there with the horses, didn’t I?” His voice was laced with not only anger, but a deep fear. I had come close to death – too close. Pa’s worst fear had almost come true.
I turned and looked at Pa. I had hoped he would run up to me and put his arms around me, grateful I was alive. "I...I...I just came over here because it was shady...I thought it would be alright." I tried to explain. I thought Pa said he’d be there to protect me!
But Pa was angry and his eyes held such and incredible fear! "Never mind what you thought! When I give you an order you obey it and no back talk! You remember that!" He shouted.
"Yes sir...but the cat could have jumped me over where the horses were..." I started to add ‘And you said you’d be watching me.’
But he didn’t want to hear my explanation. "I said no back talk Mark! Now what do I have to do to make you understand what.....?" Pa’s voice held more fear than anger in it now. He sounded as if he were about to burst into tears. Suddenly Pa stopped. He lifted his rifle and stared at it. A look of extreme grief came over his face.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked suddenly.
“Me. That’s what’s wrong, son,” Pa answered as he stared at his rifle. “I missed. You wanted to come with me but I said you’d be safe down here. And now you could be lying dead…because I missed!” I heard a fear in Pa’s voice like I’d never heard before. It scared me.
“But he ran off!” I reminded him. I didn’t understand why he suddenly looked and talked this way. He was grieving for something that wasn’t there. He was borrowing fears.
His grieved eyes turned to look at me. “He could have just as easily jumped you, Mark, instead.” He stared at me as if he had already lost me.
Those eyes…they scared me! He had lost something today, but I didn’t know what or why. “But he didn’t and…and everything’s alright now, Pa.” I stared into those eyes, trying to understand what he had lost today.
“Is it?” Pa asked. “Come on, Mark. Let’s head home.”
Had he forgotten about the cougar we needed to hunt for? Pa turned and looked at the tree as we walked toward the horses. I turned and looked too. Was there something up there – is that where he had gone? Into the tree with the cougar?
Pa walked to his horse and started to put his foot in the stirrup. “Pa, will you talk to me?” I asked. “Tell me what’s wrong!”
“Me. That’s what’s wrong!” Pa answered. I saw tears shining in his eyes. “I’m wrong…I’m all wrong!”
Pa just looked up from the saddle and stared at me as if I’d just told him the world was coming to an end. He didn’t say anything, but just got into the saddle. “Stay close to me, son. I’ll TRY to protect you.”
I’d never seen him act like this. I’d never heard him talk like this. His words and deeds were scaring me. I tried to lighten the mood as we rode home by telling him about a project I was thinking on doing with some of my friends, but as I finished, I could tell Pa wasn’t listening. He said something to try and convince me, but I wasn’t.
He just sat there and stared at his rifle. “You didn’t hear I thing I said.”
“I heard you. We’ll start on it tomorrow.” I knew he hadn’t heard me. Tomorrow was Sunday. “I’ll be back before lunch.”
He walked toward the door. “Where are you going?”
Pa turned. “To the gunsmith to see Angus. I just sat there as he walked out. I heard him race away on Razor. He hadn’t given me a choice of coming with him.
I worried. The cougar was still out there. Pa had been so focused on tracking and killing the cougar. Now he was worried on something else. And that worried me. All this time, he’d been trying to convince me not to be so afraid of this cat I couldn’t see.
I grabbed my rifle and went outside to do my chores. I knew I had upset Pa enough, so I didn’t leave the yard. Instead, I focused on chores around the ranch. I chopped and stacked some wood, repaired the barn door, and was working on laying down fresh hay for the horses when I heard Pa ride back in.
“Mark!” That same fear was in Pa’s voice. “Mark!” I turned, rifle in hand and waved at him.
He ran up to me. “What are you doing out here?” he asked.
“Well, I’m…I’m doing chores. I…”
“Get in the house! Get in the house now!” Pa ordered.
Any hint of a smile that had been on my face before was suddenly gone. “Pa, what’s wrong?” I asked.
He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the house. “Pa, what’s the matter?” I turned, almost expecting to see the cougar behind us…but there was no sign. There was no sign of anything. “Pa, talk to me!”
When we got inside, Pa slammed the door behind him. I jumped at the sound as it shook the house. He pointed a finger straight at me. When he spoke, his voice cracked and was full of fear. “Now you listen, and you listen good, boy! I am still your father and I still give the orders around here! When I tell you to do something, you do it! You hear me?”
My mouth slowly opened as he yelled. I stared at him, totally confused as to what was going on. “I said do you hear me?” Pa shouted even louder.
“What’s the matter, Pa?” I asked, suddenly confused.
“Yes or no, Mark!”
“Yes sir, I hear ya but…” I started.
“How many times have I told you not to back talk me? Don’t you know that I know what’s best for you? Can’t you trust my judgment? Don’t you know that I’ll always be here to take care of you?” Pa continued rambling off question after question as I continued staring at him.
“Pa, I…” I lowered my head. Pa turned and put his rifle back in the holder. I saw the dejection in his slumped shoulders. “I wish you would talk to me!”
What had happened? Last night he had sat down with me and insisted on talking through my fears. Now this morning…he was like a different man – someone who didn’t care about my feelings.
Pa whirled around and looked at me. He lifted another finger and opened his mouth to do some more yelling. Suddenly, he grabbed me and hugged me to himself. “Oh Mark, I’m so sorry! I’m so…” His voice broke as he held me tighter then he’d held me in a long time. I felt I was suffocating from his tight hug. It was almost like he was…It was almost like if he let me go, someone would grab me and take me far way. He’d never see me again.
“Pa, what’s wrong?” I asked against his chest. “You’re scaring me! I…”
Pa pulled me away. He sat down in the chair and stared into my face. He ran his hand through my hair. Then he slowly moved his hand from my forehead, down my cheek, to my chin, then rested it on my shoulder. He put a hand on each one of my cheeks.
Never had I seen him so overcome by emotions. He was as if he was grieving for me and I didn’t know why. He stared into my eyes. “I keep seeing that cougar…” Pa swallowed. “He’s leaping at your throat. In your dream He tried to warn us, but I didn’t listen. Now you could be…” Pa lowered his eyes to the floor. “…dead.”
“I’m not dead, Pa! I’m not!” I argued. I lifted Pa’s head, forcing him to look into my face. “Pa, I’m alive and I NEED you! Do you understand? I still NEED you!”
Pa slowly lifted his hands from my shoulder where they had slipped to. He forced my hands from his face and stood. He walked away from me and went to stand to look out the window. “There was a time…not too long ago that I could protect you from anything. But now…”
“You still can, Pa! You can!” Pa shook his head. “Pa, don’t you understand? I’m only 14 years old! I still need you so badly!”
“I…” Pa swallowed. “I just don’t know how anymore. When did it get so hard? When did it…”
Pa hurried to the door, rifle in hand. “I’m going to go check on the cattle.” He didn’t look at me. I heard the coldness in his voice. It sent shivers up my spine. “You don’t leave this house.”
I stayed silent as he opened the door. He stood in the doorway and straightened up. He stared straight ahead, his back towards me. “You hear me?” he cried.
I stared at the door that had just closed. A new fear had gripped me now. I was no longer afraid of the cougar. I was no longer afraid of the hearing on another person’s death. No, I had much more to fear now…I feared the darkness that had just entered my father.
And that fear was much, much worse than anything I had experienced.
I sighed as I sat at the table and stared down at the piece of paper I had been writing on. “McCain and Son,” I had written as I drew a sign that could go over the entrance of our ranch someday. Pa had said we’d always be partners. I put a question mark below the sign.
Then I wrote the word FEAR below. This house seemed to be a house of fear at the moment. Pa was struggling with something new. I was struggling with so many things. He forced me to talk about my fears, yet he was keeping his bottled up tight inside himself.
I stood and walked over to the window. Pa stood at the corral gate staring inside at the milk cow. I turned and stirred the stew that was simmering on the stove. Then I walked to the door and opened it. “Pa?” I called. But there was no answer.
Slowly, I made my way to him. Pa moved from the gate and allowed me in front of him. He wrapped his arms around me from behind as he stared into the corral. I could feel the trembling coming from his body. “We’ve always had an agreement, Pa, not to keep things from each other.”
I waited, but got nothing but silence.
“We’ve had so many problems recently, Pa. I think your problem can be resolved if…if you just talk to me.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Pa answered.
I suddenly turned from his embrace. I stood as tall as I could and placed my hands on his shoulders. Pa looked down into my eyes. “I can try, Pa. Just talk to me.”
“Pa, please! You force me to talk to you about…about what’s bothering me, yet…” I started.
“You can’t go where I’m at, Mark. I’ve been your age but…” Pa sighed. “You’ve never been mine. You don’t know what’s it’s like to…to lose control. Everything…” Pa shuddered.
“What, Pa? What’s out of control?”
Pa looked into my eyes again. “I’m so sorry, son.” Pa brushed his fingertips across my cheek. “I’m sorry I wasn’t the father you needed today.”
“What are you talking about, Pa?” I demanded to know.
Pa turned from me. His shoulders slumped. “Well…I’ll go feed the stock, son. You get back inside. You aren’t safe out here.”
Pa suddenly spun around. “I said you aren’t safe out here!”
I couldn’t read his thoughts any longer. I felt rejected. “Stew’s ready, Pa.”
Pa turned and hurried for the barn, obviously rejecting any offer I had to give him. I turned and hurried back into the house. I ran into the bedroom and threw myself onto the bed. Then I cried into my pillow as my heart broke. I felt hurt and rejected.
It was some time later that I heard the front door open and close. “Mark?” I heard Pa call. I wiped my eyes and came out of the room. Pa hurried to me when he saw I’d been crying. “What’s wrong, Mark?”
“Why?” Pa asked me then. I just shrugged as I grabbed two bowls and dipped the overcooked stew into them. “Talk to me, son! Tell me what’s wrong! Why were you crying?” I didn’t answer as I grabbed two spoons and put them in the bowls. “Is it the cougar? Does he have you jumping at shadows again?” Pa pleaded with me.
I turned from the table and glared at him. “No, Pa. It’s not the cougar I’m afraid of.” I walked to the stove and poured a cup of coffee. “It’s something much, much worse…” I handed him the coffee. “I’m afraid the stew is overcooked, Pa. I’m sorry.”
I sat down and ate in silence. I felt Pa’s eyes on me, but I didn’t want to talk. I was angry and hurt. I couldn’t believe he was shutting me out of his most recent problem. He needed me, but I didn’t know how to reach him. When I finished the last bite in my bowl, I put it in the sink. “If you want, I’ll clean up the dishes in the morning,” I said quietly from the sink. “Or you can do it, I really don’t care right now.”
Then I hurried to bed.
Sleep was a long time in coming. I had so many thought through my head. I really needed to talk to Pa about what had happened earlier today because I was terrified about it, but Pa had gone somewhere I couldn’t go. He’d found himself in turmoil. He was hurting me…his son. And I didn’t know why.
I turned toward the wall as I felt hot tears burning my eyes. The door opened. Pa came in and sat down next to my bed. I closed my eyes in the darkness pretending to be asleep. I felt him tuck the covers up tighter around me. He brushed the hair back from my face and sighed heavily. I could tell he was in great torment, but I didn’t know why. “God help him,” Pa prayed then. Then he walked out.
I buried my head in my pillow and fell asleep as tears escaped my eyes.
I was racing…racing…as fast as I could down the road. My legs felt heavier. I felt my feet were only traveling half the speed they needed to travel. Fear gripped every piece of my body. It was following me…following and crying out something horrible!
“No!” I cried. “Go away! I don’t want you here!”
But it cried louder and ran faster. It was catching up to me. “Pa!” I cried. “Pa, catch it…catch it…”
Pa suddenly leapt out. He cocked his rifle and fired, but he couldn’t kill it. He couldn’t even slow it down. Pa looked at his rifle and flung it into the air. “I can’t, son! I can’t stop it!”
Tears sprung into my eyes as I reached out to Pa. “Protcect me, Pa!” I turned to see it coming quickly. In a mater of moments, it would be upon me. Pa clung to me and we started running together, but it was so powerful! It laughed a wicked laugh as it continued racing toward me. “Pa! It’s coming!” I shouted.
“No! We’re not ready for you!” Pa screamed as together we took a giant leap.
Then I felt myself falling…falling…falling…
Suddenly, the cougar leapt at me. “Pa, the cougar!”
I flung myself up in bed. Pa grabbed me by the arms. “Mark, you’re alright, son,” he said softly.
I didn’t understand the dream. All I remembered was the cougar. “Pa, I thought the cougar was gonna get me…”
Pa looked grieved as he looked at me. “I know, son…I…I’m sorry I missed.”
The look on his face was haunting me. There was a loss there…a fear…”Well, it was only a dream,” I said softly. He turned from me. He couldn’t stand to look me in the eye. “Pa…” Pa turned back to me. “I said it was only a dream.”
“I heard you, Mark.”
But something was tormenting him. Pa told me to lay down and go back to sleep. I wondered if he had even been to bed, but he just tucked me in and stood.
As I went to sleep, I wondered if it was only a dream. The cougar had come at the end, but before…before was some sort of monster that seemed to be so real…
It seemed I had only been asleep for moments when I woke up at the sound of rifle shots. I feared the cougar was back. I jumped from bed and raced to the front porch. There, I watched Pa. He was shooting his rifle as if he had to prove something to himself. There was such a turmoil there. I felt a fear…a loss…growing between us.
I walked back inside and dressed. I walked into the kitchen and started mixing up the stuff for pancakes. Pa walked inside. He didn’t even look at me, but hurried toward the bedroom. “Morning, Pa.”
He didn’t say anything. I turned from my cooking and hurried into the bedroom. Pa picked up my mother’s picture from the desk and stared at it. “Where did it all go, Margaret? Where?” Pa cried. I watched from the doorway as Pa leaned onto the desk and stared at Ma’s picture. He allowed the desk to hold his weight as tears fell from his eyes and dripped onto her already tear-stained picture. So many times I’d seen him crying over it. So many times he’d been grieved.
But not like this…This was so very different. “Pa?” I called softly.
Pa suddenly turned from me. “Get out of here, Mark!” he cried. “Get out!” he pleaded.
I suddenly realized I had intruded on something he didn’t want me to see. I stood there and stared. “I said get out!”
I knew Pa’s fear was there, but still…I didn’t know what it was. Never had I seen him so feared…so shaken…so grieved. I quickly turned and hurried out. My heart broke some more. I felt so hurt that he couldn’t share his darkness with me when I had been forced to share mine with him. Why couldn’t I hold him in my arms like he held me so many times? Why couldn’t a son share in his father’s grief?
There was a dark silence in the house as I finished up breakfast. I turned and looked at the closed door to the bedroom a few times, but I didn’t enter. I knew Pa would eventually come out when he was ready.
As I poured coffee into his cup, the door opened. I looked up to see Pa standing in the doorway. “Mark, I…” I turned away. I knew he was about to apologize, but that wasn’t good enough. I could tell he wasn’t going to talk to me. He felt guilty, and guilt was just another emotion he was using as an excuse to hide in the darkness he was in.
I watched as Pa sat down and put pancakes on his plate. “Looks good, son.” He sat the plate down. I didn’t move to take any as I stared at him. “What’s wrong?”
“We haven’t blessed the food yet.”
“Oh. Pa quickly bowed his head. “Lord, bless this food which you have prepared it and…these humble hands that prepared it. Amen.”
Never had I heard my father pray with so little feeling. Never had he uttered such a short prayer without asking God for guidance and strength.
We ate in silence. When we were done, Pa stood and grabbed his rifle and hat. By the way, Pa doesn’t know I knew, but he slept with his rifle last night. That was just another part of the darkness he was facing. I quickly stood and hurried over to him. “Where are you going?”
“To town,” Pa answered as he opened the door.
I grabbed his arm. “No, Pa! It’s Sunday!”
“There’s no church today, Mark,” Pa declared in a cold voice. “I canceled it, remember?”
“But when there’s no church, Pa…we study our Bible right here.”
Pa looked down at his rifle. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the door before he spoke. “Son, I…” Pa allowed his breath to slowly escape him. “I can’t.”
“Pa?” I held tight to his arm. “Won’t you talk to me? Please? Tell me what’s bothering you, I…”
“No!” Pa shouted.
“Pa!” I shouted back as he hurried out the door. I watched him jump on his saddled horse. “Pa!” He was running from something, but I didn’t know what. I leaned my head against the door post as he quickly disappeared. “Oh Pa…where are you?”
I hadn’t slept very well the night before. I was so tired as I loaded my rifle and carried it outside to do the chores. Pa had given me strict orders to stay inside, but he wasn’t following his own orders. He wasn’t talking to me and obeying him was not something I really cared about doing at the moment.
I worked through my chores, but I kept my rifle ready. There was an eeriness about the air. I could feel it there. It was lurking in the shadows. I didn’t know what it was.
Then I walked inside and laid down to read from the Bible. “When I am afraid, I will trust in thee.” I read that over and over. Then I got on my knees at my bed and prayed to God to help me trust him.
“God…My father is struggling with something right now. He’s in a kind of darkness that I can’t see through. I don’t know if it’s me…or him…or…I don’t know what. He is afraid, Father. He’s afraid of something so fearful – more fearful than that cougar roaming the countryside. Lord, I’m asking that today, you send him the peace he needs. Please send somebody…or…or something that will end this darkness. Let somebody shine the light into him so he can find his way back to me.”
My prayer finally ended and I crawled up onto my bed. I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
It was the same thing…I was running from it as it chased me. It was laughing evilly. “Pa, Pa…help me!” I cried.
Pa grabbed me as we started running. He held his rifle and shot in the air hoping to scare it away but it didn’t scare. “I need, you, Pa! Don’t you understand I need you?”
Suddenly, Pa stopped running. He grabbed me. “Stop running, son. If we both stop running…”
We froze and turned to look at the thing. It stopped. The form changed. It was no longer a dark creature. The darkness turned lighter as we watched. Pa stood at my side as the new being of light started slowly…ever so slowly…walking toward us. “Pa, I’m no longer afraid of it!” I declared. “I’m no longer…
Pa put his arms around me one last time as he stood behind me. He gave me a gentle push forward. “Walk toward it, son. For now on, I’ll be right behind you. Walk toward it.”
I smiled as I reached out my hand toward the being. Our laughs became intertwined as the being took my hand. “It feels good, Pa!” I declared. “It feel so safe! We’re going to be okay!”
Pa stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders. “Yes. Now that we’re accepting it as something that will come, we’ll both be okay. It’s nothing to fear, son. It’s something wonderful that’s been waiting for you all this time. Continue walking with it, son. You will be blessed as I have been in my walk with…”
“Manhood!” I declared as I sat up in bed.
***It was mid-afternoon and Pa wasn’t home yet. I stretched as I stood from the bed and looked outside. Razor was tied to the hitching post. I walked out onto the porch. “Pa?” I called. But there was no answer.I looked down in the dirt and saw his footprints. They headed out onto the range. I scratched my head, suddenly wondering why he would be out there with a cougar on the loose. He was on foot. I no longer felt I needed my rifle for protection. It was then that I noticed Pa’s rifle was still in the boot on the saddle.
I walked through the gate and onto the range. After walking for a few minutes, I saw him. He was sitting on the pond bank staring out into the water. He looked like he was deep in thought. I turned to go back home, not wanting more angry words flung at me, but something in my heart told me to go to him. I took a step forward and swallowed. Then softly, I called…”Pa?”
He didn’t answer. I went to him and sat down beside him. “Hello.” I said as I pressed my knees against my chest and wrapped my arms around them.
Pa’s eyes filled with tears. “Hello, Mark.” I watched as he swallowed hard. “How was your day?”
“It would be much better if…if you had been here with me, Pa,” I answered softly.
Pa closed his eyes in regret. “I’ve done…” He stopped as he took another big swallow. “I’ve done some horrible things, son…but talking to you like I did…there’s no excuse.”
I looked out over the pond. He stayed silent. “I prayed for you.”
Pa’s head turned toward me then. I didn’t deserve it.”
“There’s been several times these last several months when you prayed for me even thought I…didn’t deserve it.” I turned and looked at him. “Did my prayers help?”
Pa nodded. He closed his eyes again as he tried to hold back the tears. “Pa…I don’t rightly want to share all the details with you right now, but…I realize now what really scared me. It wasn’t the cougar and it wasn’t even all the stuff that had been happening….well…maybe in a way it was.” I turned toward Pa. “You know what it was? It was manhood. God showed me in a dream. You were there holding my hand. You helped me walk into its embrace. You told me you’d be right behind me.”
I saw a tear trickle down Pa’s cheek. “The…” Pa stopped and wiped at the tear. “Yesterday when that cougar was there, son…I was overcome with fear. Never had I looked straight into the eyes of my worst fear – loosing you. I’ve always been there to protect you…to rescue you…and then yesterday when I saw that your life was in mortal danger, it was the first time that I didn’t save you.”
“You did, Pa! Your firing that gun chased him off.”
“No, son. It was out of my hands. Yesterday God chose to save you. I suddenly realized that your life was out of my hands. I can no longer protect you from everything. I think it’s been building in me for months, but the near cougar-attack was the last straw. I’ve watched you…struggle with man-sized problems, and I had no control over the decisions you chose to make. But this…I thought I could protect you – I thought I could…” Pa turned and looked at me. “I too was scared of manhood, son.”
Pa looked back out over the water. “I went to town today for answers. I knew they weren’t there, but I was suffocating. At home, you were there to make me realize just how grown up you were getting. I had to get away. But my answers weren’t in town. I said some horrible…horrible things to Micah…then to Lou. Then this man came into Lou’s – someone she knew from her past and started pestering her. I saw something I could control. I snapped and almost got into a shootout because of my anger.”
I just allowed him to talk. More tears trickled down his face as he talked. I was surprised to hear about his fears. I had no idea that a father could fear his son growing up. “Pa, you looked like you were grieving.”
“I was.” Pa looked me in the eye. “I’ve been so busy these past few months worrying about all the suffering you’ve been going through and…and helping you get through each of these problems that I forgot to watch. Over these months, your boyhood disappeared almost completely. And I saw you struggling with that. You wanted to be a boy again but it was out of reach. You were fighting manhood. But then…when I was out with the man who followed me to seek satisfaction…I saw the cougar. He was about to pounce on the man and I killed him. The cougar fell dead…practically at my feet.
“I stared down at it and realized it was still there. It didn’t disappear. We’ll always have the memories of what it had done while it was alive. We’ll have the memories of the harm it caused. Then I got to thinking…you’re still here. You are that same child that I held in my arms when you were born. You were the same little boy who broke your arm and lost your two front teeth when you fell from the tree. You’re the same little boy who used to beg and plead to stay out of school. You’re the same little boy who…” Pa turned and looked at me. “…who still has a sweet tooth and a mischievous side. You’ve grown into a man, but I’ll always have those memories. Now…I can make some new memories as I watch you grow into a full-grown man. Soon I’ll be teaching you to shave. I’ll watch you get married. I’ll hold your sons and daughter in my arms. Soon I’ll watch you in the yard playing with your children and I’ll sit back in a chair and relax. I’ll smile back on your growing up time. I’ll tell your children about it. And when I take my last breath on this earth, I’ll take your memories with me and share every one of them with your mother.”
I wiped at the tears on my face. Pa reached out and rubbed his fingertips along my cheek. “And now, son…I have one more thing to say…” Pa turned to me. “I don’t know how many times you’ve come to this pond when you were hurting. You’ve apologized to me and listened to my hard truths. You’ve accepted punishments at this pond. We’ve resolved problems…” Pa looked down at the ground, then back up. “Mark…today there’s another problem to solve. I’ve hurt you and…”
“No Pa. That’s-“ I started.
“Yes, son. It’s very necessary.” Pa stated. “Son, part of being a man is to accept the fact that I’m not perfect. I make mistakes – bad mistakes. And like you, I have to seek retribution for those mistakes. Micah’s accepted my forgiveness as I knew he would. And Lou…well…sweet ol’ Lou, the red headed wolverine...” Pa chuckled. “She sure was one today, but she eventually accepted my apology after a good tongue lashing and a lot of sweet talk from me. But they don’t matter as much as you do.” Pa reached out and put his hands on my shoulder. “Son, I know I hurt you deeply. And for that I’m sorry. I’m sorry I shut you out. Will you forgive me?”
I couldn’t speak. I was too overcome with emotions, so I did the only thing I COULD do. I got on my knees and wrapped my arms around my Pa. We wept as our hearts healed. I cried into his shoulder as Pa cried into mine. “I forgive you,” I whispered softly in his ear. It felt strange to say that to Pa, but I knew he needed to hear it. “I forgive you.”
Then we broke the embrace and stood up. We wiped our tears with the back of our sleeves and turned toward home. “Pa, Lou didn’t by any chance send anything to eat back with you did she?”
Pa kept his arm around my shoulder as we walked toward home. “Maybe. Why do you ask?”
“Oh…” I shrugged. “It’s just that ever since she got into town she’s been working on fattening you up.”
“She told me today she was pleased with her work.” Pa chuckled. “She’s finally seeing results.”
I stopped and turned towards him. “Oh?” I asked. “How so?”
“Well son, you see, we…” Pa stopped when he saw the mischievous grin on my face. “Alright now, smart alec! That is none of your business!”
I folded my arms as I looked him up and down. “Tell me something, Pa…exactly what kind of “sweet talking” did you have to do today? Obviously she can tell you’re fattening up so I’m just…uh…a little curious.”
Pa raised his hand to smack my back side. I darted away as he ran after me. Our laughter rang out as the sun began to set. It felt good to finally feel so free to live again.
That night, Pa and I went to bed at the same time. I watched as he sat in his chair undressing. He was deep in thought. “Pa, something wrong?” I asked.
“No, son. I’m just…remembering back,” Pa answered as he smiled.
“Can I join you?”
Pa smiled. “I’m just remembering back to all those times you tried to get out of going to school. Now you embrace it. You want to go to school.”
“Actually, Pa, I was wondering if we could go fishing tomorrow.”
Pa turned and raised an eyebrow at me. Then he nodded. “I think I’d like that.”
My mouth dropped open. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Pa smiled. Then he shook his head. “You’re growing up, Mark. You really are. That’s what Micah was trying to tell me.”
I smiled, thinking now was the perfect opportunity to bring up another important matter. “Uh Pa…talkin’ about growin’ up…You know, Nils was telling me that he has a…a new man’s saddle for me whenever you’re ready.”
Pa smiled. “We’ll see about it in the morning, son.”
I smiled as I lay down. Maybe my Pa was really growing up! Pa stood and came to tuck me in. “Uh Pa…I can do it.”
I half expected him to get a really sad, dejected look on his face. But he had indeed come a long way today. He smiled and nodded. I saw pride in his eyes.
Pa finished undressing and climbed into bed. I suddenly sat up. “Married????” I cried. “In a few years…me???? married????”
Pa laughed. “Yes…married!”
I sat there and stared at him. Pa grinned. “Welcome to manhood, son. Goodnight.”
Then he blew out the lantern and I was left “in the dark.”
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Incident at Line Shack Six
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
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