You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
written by Michelle Palmer
The Coward — Episode 53
Our laughter stopped. I firmly held the ball in my hand as we stood, frozen in our spots, and watched silently as he walked into the schoolyard. Not a single finger moved. We didn’t even blink our eyes. Even the birds suddenly seemed quiet as we stared.
He was big. His shoulders were wide, and his muscles so thick it would take two of my pa’s to wrap hands around that arm. He was tall – several heads taller then the tallest kid in our class. His hair was messed up as if he had just gotten out of bed and his clothes were wrinkled. The expression on his face told us all we needed to know – he was planning on being boss.
I swallowed, and suddenly feared that even that slight move would set him off. He threw his books down on the steps, spread his legs out in front of us, folded his arms and said, “Well, well, well…What have we got here? Lots of pip-squeaks!” He looked around with that evil smile on his face. Then he came up to me and grabbed the ball from me so roughly that I reared backwards, landing flat on my backside.
He laughed an evil laugh that sent my blood to boiling. Then he threw the ball at me so hard that I cringed from the pain. I immediately rubbed my arm where it hit and stared into his eyes. “You just remember that, pip-squeak!” He bent down as I sat up, still on the ground. He put his fist very close to my face. “If you don’t, I’ll bust your face!”
After that, he walked inside the schoolhouse. I slowly stood as we stared at the open door he had just entered. “Is he staying, Mark?” Billy asked.
I slowly nodded. “Looks like it.”
“You may have to fight him!” Charlie suddenly announced.
I slowly shook my head. “There’s no way I’m fighting him!”
“What are you? A coward?” Susie asked. “You gonna let that boy bully you around?”
“Or maybe he’s gonna go running to his old man!” Jeff suddenly sneered at me.
“I am not!” My head whirled around. “I’m not telling Pa. He may come up and talk to him, that could make matters worse!” I folded my arms across my middle. “And not fighting him isn’t an act of cowardness! It’s an act of brains!”
“I don’t care what you say,” Susie shouted. “If you don’t fight him, you’re a coward!”
I looked around at some of the other kids. They were nodding their heads. I shook mine as the bell rang. We slowly walked inside.
I started for my seat, but suddenly saw him there! Skinny was gone today, so I went to sit down beside Billy. Miss Adams looked up and saw me, but said nothing. I sighed in relief, happy she didn’t put up a fight for me to sit where I usually did.
I found out the new kid’s name. His name was Denver. And at lunch as I sat down with Billy to eat, Denver immediately walked up to me and snatched my lunch from me. “Hey! That’s my lunch!” I shouted.
He took a big bite out of my sandwich. “Yeah? What you gonna do about it?”
I stared at him for a moment. My fists were clinched at my side. I looked at the challenge in his eyes then I turned and saw the other kids staring at me, waiting for me to say or do something. Denver suddenly raised his arm above his head as if to strike me and I threw my arms up over my head in protection and ducked away from him.
Some of the kids laughed. I slowly lowered my arms and saw that same sneer still on his face. He gave me a hard shove, knocking me to the ground for the second time that day. “Well? Are you gonna try to take it back?”
I just sat on the ground. “No,” I answered and walked away. I could feel several pairs of eyes on me as I made my way back inside the schoolhouse.
Miss Adams was sitting quietly at her desk eating her lunch and grading papers. Billy came inside and sat down next to me as I stared at my open book on my desk. “You couldn’t fight him, Mark.”
“Thanks Billy,” I muttered. “But I just made a fool of myself.”
“No-“ Billy started.
But I wouldn’t let him finish. “Yes I did!” I snapped back. I looked up and saw Miss Adams stare at me. I smiled at her and she went back to her lunch. “Pa’s always taught me not to let people push me around. That’s exactly what I did today. I let him push me around instead of standing up to him.”
I was glad it was Friday. I couldn’t stand the fact of facing this rough and tough boy the next day. I started to walk out of the schoolyard that afternoon, but I suddenly felt a hand at my shoulder. “Where you think you’re going, runt?” Denver suddenly asked.
“Home,” I answered softly. I cleared my throat to say it louder. “Home.”
“Okay, you go on home, pip-squeak! But remember this: you make one wrong move or tell one person about me, and I’ll cut you down to size! Now git!” He knocked me to the ground again.
I shook my head as I stood to leave. He saw me and grabbed my arm. “Am I gonna hafta teach ya some manners?” He was only inches from my face. “Well?”
I swallowed hard and shook my head. He let go of my arm and laughed. I saw some of the other kids staring at me, looks of disappointment sat on their faces. I turned and ran out of the yard like a scared kitten. I didn’t stop running until I got into town. Then I sat down behind Hattie’s Store, put my head to my knees, and drew my arms around my head. I just sat there for a long time. I wasn’t crying, but I sure felt like it.
“Mark?” I suddenly heard. It was Micah. He came to sit down next to me. “What’s wrong boy?”
I shook my head. “Nothin’”
“I don’t believe that.” Micah just sat there. He continued looking at me. “I…I just have a problem is all.”
“Oh. Well, you want to tell me about it?”
“No sir,” I answered.
“Well, you want me to go get your Pa? He’s at the Livery.”
“No!” I said louder then I needed to. Micah raised his eyes at me. “I mean, no. Please don’t tell him you saw me like this, Micah. Please.” Micah continued watching me. “It’s a problem I have to settle myself. “Please, Micah.”
Micah nodded. “Alright, son. But if it gets any worse, or I get wind of any trouble, I’ll have to tell your father something’s wrong.”
“Yes sir.” I stood and mustered up as much strength as I could. Then I hurried off to the General Store.
By the time I got there, Pa was there ordering the things he needed. He smiled when he saw me. “Hello son,” he greeted me. Then he gently grabbed my arm to lead me outside. I flinched as he pressed on the bruise on my arm. Pa stopped. “What’s wrong, boy?”
“No-nothing, Pa,” I answered.
“Something wrong with your arm?” He looked down at where his head still sat.
“N-no,” I answered.
But Pa scooted my sleeve up my arm and turned it over. My eyes grew wide as I saw the big bruise on my upper arm. It was a big, ugly purple bruise. “Where’d you get this Mark?” Pa asked. I stayed quiet. I couldn’t tell him. “Mark, I asked you a question!”
I stared into his eyes. I saw a deep concern and fear there. I swallowed. “Someone hit me with a ball today,” I answered truthfully.
Pa narrowed his eyes at me. “On purpose?” He asked. I didn’t answer at first. “Did they do it on purpose?”
I nodded. Suddenly, Miss Hattie announced that she had our things ready. We started loading the wagon. Moving the heavy sacks made my arm hurt, but I wasn’t going to tell Pa that. I continued with my chore cheerfully, happy to be with my Pa for the next two days. Suddenly, Pa suggested I take a rest. I smiled at that, but I knew he was only half joking.
Then we saw George. Pa and I watched him as he begged for a job so he could eat. I suddenly felt sorry for the guy. It must be awful to not even know where your next meal was coming from! I watched him slowly walk away, his face downcast. He had it rough, I knew. Pa looked at me. I looked at him. We were both thinking the same thing. I stayed in the wagon while he grabbed his rifle and went over to the man.
George was jumpy. As soon as he saw my Pa he wanted to run. I watched them talk, not sure what was being said. But I sure was happy when Pa called to me that we were going to go eat. I certainly wasted no time in that! I love to eat.
As we sat, George told us the sad story of how he ended up here in North Fork with no money. He said he was afraid of everything – people, places, everything. I remembered how afraid I had been just a couple hours before, but it wasn’t the West. “What’s there to be afraid of?” I asked. It wasn’t like he had a big, mean man after him!
“Mark,” Pa suddenly snapped at me. I immediately regretted the words. I didn’t mean it the way Pa heard it. I was asking myself that question as much as I was George.
George was sorry for his life. I know my Pa already told you all about that. And when he took out that mouth organ, I got all excited! Pa and I smiled at each other as he played, and I was sure disappointed that he stopped. He was awful good! So good that I wanted to dance a jig! But I knew that getting up in the middle of the restaurant to dance a jig wouldn’t only embarrass my Pa, but also me!
Pa talked George into working for him for a few days. He helped me finish loading the wagon. Then there were suddenly a man there who acted like George’s old friend. But George didn’t act too happy to see him. I watched them walk toward the saloon and looked around for my Pa. George was taking his time in getting back so I quietly snuck to the saloon and peeped inside. They were being mean to George, tripping him and grabbing his book. I went to find Pa.
I found him finishing up at the livery. “Pa!” I yelled for him. “George is in trouble! In the saloon!”
“The saloon?” Pa asked as he started back toward the horses. “What’s he doing in there?” I told him a man had practically pulled him in there. We walked back toward the wagon when we heard yelling. Pa made me wait by the wagon while he went inside. I heard Pa yelling. Then George came out.
George looked sad and embarrassed. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
George sat beside me on the back of the wagon. “I’m a coward,” he answered. “A big stupid coward!”
I didn’t say anything. That’s kind of the way I felt after dealing with that boy. I should have stood up to him. Maybe it would have been enough but-
Pa came out. George told Pa that he had seen Buddy (that’s one of the boys he worked for on the trail) pick up the bottle. I knew better then to ask any questions. I wanted to be friendly with him, so I cheerfully said, “Hop on, George!”
As we rode down the road, George and I started talking. Pa couldn’t really hear with the wagon going down the road, so I felt pretty safe in asking him some questions Pa wouldn’t approve of. “You weren’t scared back East?”
“No,” George answered. “Things are different back there. We don’t have every man carrying guns and shooting at each other.”
“Is that what scares you? The guns?”
“That’s part of it. I don’t know how to explain it, Mark. The West seems wild and dangerous. There seems to be some sort of danger lurking around every corner. You could get bitten by a rattlesnake, or you could smile at a man the wrong way and get shot. I didn’t run into that stuff much back East.” He sighed. “You’re lucky, Mark. You are growing up not to be scared of anything.”
I grew quiet then. I was scared of something, though. And I had made a fool of myself in front of everybody at school by cowering away from that bully! Even though he was bigger then me, I should have…
We were home. Pa and I helped George get settled in the barn. Then we walked out. We were almost to the help when Pa suddenly heard horses slowly riding up. Pa grabbed his rifle. “Mark, get inside and get ready for bed. I’ll be in to talk to you in a few minutes.”
I stood there and stared at the approaching riders through the darkness. They were going behind the barn. “Mark, do as I say.” Then Pa hurried toward the barn.
I walked inside and slowly began undressing. Pa wasn’t gone too long when he came back inside and sighed a long sigh. I walked into the living room as Pa poured himself a cup of coffee. He looked up from the table. “Come have a seat.”
I stood in the doorway in my nightshirt, afraid to move. Pa had this way of getting at the truth, and I really didn’t want to tell him what was going on. Pa stood up and came toward me. He put an arm around my shoulders and led me into the bedroom. I got under the covers and he sat on the floor beside my bed, bending his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms around his knees. He looked at me for a few moments before he said, “Tell me how you got the bruise, son.”
I looked away. I didn’t want to talk about it. But Pa called my name in a way that told me I was to answer him. I cleared my throat. “I done told ya, Pa! I got hit with a ball.” Pa raised an eyebrow at me. “Honest, Pa!”
Pa studied me. His eyes narrowed. “Okay, but what’s the rest of the story?” I shook my head. “Mark, a bruise like that wasn’t done with a ball. It may have started out that way, but someone grabbed you.”
“George isn’t the only coward around here,” I muttered.
Pa’s head suddenly shot up. He slowly stood and sat on the side of my bed. Putting a hand under my chin, he lifted it to look straight into my eyes. “The only coward I see around here is Buddy Link!”
I gave Pa a mock laugh. “You mean the man that was whipping on George in the saloon?”
Pa nodded. “And the one who showed up tonight to whip on me.” I stayed silent as I thought on that. I couldn’t quite see Buddy being a coward. He was a bully. Just like Denver.
“Now, what’s this about being a coward?” Pa raised an eyebrow at me.
I saw the stern look through the lantern light that brightened up the room. “Pa, I don’t want to talk about it,” I sighed.
Pa continued that stern look. I wiggled a bit, wishing I could hide from that look. Finally, I let out a big sigh. “Okay, okay. He grabbed me by the arm and ate my lunch today. Then he reared back acting like he was going to hit me and- I just did it, Pa! I’m sorry I did too, cause all the kids laughed at me for it!”
Pa held up a hand. He shook his head. “Wait a minute! Who?”
“This new boy…man…in school. He’s big, Pa! And he shoved me in the dirt then threw the ball at me!” I shook my head. “I’ve never seen someone so mean! When he reared back to hit me, I threw my arms up to shield my head and ducked like a great big chicken!”
“Hm.” Pa thought on this. “You know son, I knew this boy once who had a bully at school. He would come to school every morning and give this bully the math homework he did for him the night before. Every single morning! Except for one morning when his father caught him doing two sets of problems. Then this boy beat the living daylights out of him. After that, the boy avoided him like the plague. He was afraid of him.”
“Who was this boy?” I asked.
“Me,” Pa answered. “Am I a coward?”
“No.” I was surprised, to say the least. “But Pa, you’ve always taught me to stand up for myself!”
“You didn’t want to make trouble for yourself, son. What if I went up against someone like him in a shootout?”
I hadn’t thought of that. “I see.”
Pa nodded. “I do want to deal with this problem, son. I don’t like a big boy treating you rough.” I knew that would happen! I opened my mouth to protest but Pa held up a hand. “Son, when someone who’s bigger then you is picking on you, it’s my job to step in and intervene.”
Pa suddenly ordered me to go to bed. I knew that was the end for tonight.
The next day Pa announced he had a lot of chores to do. He allowed me to go to the brook and fish when all my chores were done to his satisfaction. And believe me, it’s one thing to do my chores. It’s a whole other thing to get them done to my Pa’s satisfaction! Ever have to clean a chicken coop three times in one morning because you didn’t get it clean enough the first two times?
Well, I was doing really good when suddenly, he was there again. I had heard a horse approaching and stood to see who it was. Denver saw me and jumped off his horse. I searched around to see what I could use to protect myself, suddenly very thankful I had my slingshot. Very carefully, I picked up three stones and put them in my pocket. The slingshot was behind my back, ready to use if I needed to.
“Well, it’s the runt!” He didn’t waste any time. He suddenly grabbed my fishing pole and broke it over his leg.
That made me angry. I licked my lips. I saw someone else approaching behind him. It was Susan. She was a Tom Boy and loved to fish. Horror filled my eyes as I watched Denver turn from me and rush up to her. He grabbed her roughly by the arm and started demanding her to leave. She cried out, frightened that he was treating her so roughly. Suddenly, I whipped out my sling shot. I grabbed one of the rocks from my pocket and pulled the rubber back.
“That’s enough!” I shouted. He continued shaking her. “I said that’s enough!”
There was silence. Susan suddenly stopped screaming. Denver turned around and stared at me with the slingshot. I stared at the slingshot as the silence grew eerie.
What was I doing? There was no way I could possibly actually shoot this rock at him! I knew that the moment that rock hit him, he would come charging at me and beat me severely. Fear suddenly gripped me but I pushed it down. I couldn’t let him see me afraid or it would all be over. I had to protect Susan.
“You just put that think down!” Denver yelled.
“It’s gonna go right between your eyes, buddy!” I said in a brave voice. But inside I was shaking like a fall leaf on a windy day. Any minute now I was going to crack.
He just stared at me. I pulled the rubber back further to show him I meant business. He narrowed his eyes. Then he waved his hand at me in irritation. “Ohhhhhh,” he said as he mounted his horse. “You aren’t worth messing with !”
I kept the slingshot aimed at him. “Yeah? Well, just remember that come Monday, I’ll still have this with me!”
I watched him ride away. Then I flung my slingshot down on the ground in frustration. What if he had come forward anyhow? I may have gotten both me and Susan hurt! I knew there was no way I could have hit him between the eyes with that rock. I could have seriously hurt him – even killed him if it had hit hard enough!
Susan tried thanking me. I looked down at my fishing pole and shook my head. “Alright, just leave me alone!” I snapped at her. Then I mounted my horse and rode home.
When I got there, I was in a pretty bad mood! Pa saw me jump off Blue Boy and walk toward the house. “You need to put your fishing pole up, son!” he said. I just kept walking. “Mark, did you hear me?”
“It’s broken!” I said to him. Pa stood by the wagon where he and George were working. I could feel his eyes boring into me, but I didn’t turn around. I walked into the house and closed the door, wanting to be alone.
Then I heard commotion coming from outside. I ran out on the porch to find not only Billy and his friend Dub, but some other guys as well! They had Pa surrounded! I suddenly want to be near my Pa, to protect him somehow if I needed to. I ran passed the men and Pa gave me a little push behind him. I knew he wanted me to get back, and he was wishing I had stayed in the house.
I watched the men surround my Pa. There were four of them who suddenly circled around him. Pa fought. He probably knew they could lick him, but he fought anyhow! I suddenly tried to run to him. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I got there, but every ounce in me wanted to protect him.
But Dub grabbed me and held me tight. I could do nothing but watch as they beat on my Pa. Every punch made me cry harder as I saw them beating on him. I struggled to get away from Dub with all my might, but he held me tight.
Then the men dragged Pa over to Buddy. Buddy punched him hard. I broke away from Dub and ran to Buddy. I would fight him myself if I had to! I wanted to protect my Pa! But Buddy pushed me to the ground. I laid there frozen, watching him punch my Pa over and over! I cried, begging him to stop.
Then suddenly, a loud shot rang in the air. It was George! He had a gun pointed right at Buddy. Buddy dropped Pa as if he were trash. I hurried over to him. He was badly hurt, but he told me to get his rifle. I did.
Then I watched Buddy. There was a sudden change on his face as Dub begged him to shoot George. He couldn’t do it. Buddy was…afraid! The bully was afraid of George, the “coward.” I suddenly remembered Pa’s words last night about Buddy being a coward. I was saddened as I watched Buddy ride away. I felt sorry for him.
Later in the barn, Pa was trying to convince George that he wasn’t a coward. As I listened to my Pa’s words, a realization struck me. “You knew all the time you couldn’t pull that trigger. You were willing to die to stop a wrong from being done. That’s courage,” Pa explained.
His words echoed in my brain. I had known I could never hit him in the face with that rock – not because I was afraid of what he would do to me, but because I was afraid at what that action would do to him. I did it because he was mistreating Susan. I knew he could beat me black and blue over it, but I still did it. “Pa’s right!” I suddenly said as the realization hit me. “That is being brave – kinda a different way.”
I was suddenly ready to eat. I rushed to the house to start fixing supper. Pa walked in then with George. They sat down at the table and started discussing places George could go to look for his kind of work. I worked silently on the stew as I listeLater that night, Pa was sitting in his chair. He had his shirt off and I could see the bruises. He held his ribs and sighed. I bent down in front of him. “Should I go for the doc?” I asked.
Pa laughed. “Mark, I’ve been punched before!”
I shook my head. “I don’t like those bruises, Pa. You could have a broken rib. You know how dangerous-“ Pa held up a hand to hush me. “Now Pa, now is no time to be stubborn!”
“I’m fine, son. But I think I’ll try to sleep right here in this chair.” Pa leaned his head back and closed his eyes. I could tell he was in a lot of pain.
I sat down at his feet and wrapped my arms around his knees. “Pa?”
“I’m not a coward.” I said this with great assurance in the fact.
Pa suddenly opened his eyes and lifted his head up. “What?”
“I’m not a coward.” I told him the story about what happened that day. “He was bigger then me, and I knew that I couldn’t do it, but…I bluffed him. But I was thinking.”
Pa smiled. “What were you thinking, son?”
“What if he had charged toward me?”
Pa rubbed his nose with a finger as he though on this. “Maybe you would have pulled the slingshot and hit him. Maybe you would have taken a beating.” Pa reached out and brushed my hair back. “The important thing, son, is that you were brave when you needed to be. That’s a true hero.”
I thought on that for a minute. Then I had another question. “Pa?”
Pa opened one eye only. “What Mark?”
“Why are Buddy and Denver like that?”
“Because they are cowards.” Pa sighed. “Did you notice how rejected Buddy looked? Something probably happened to him a long time ago that made him think he had to be tough to be accepted. Denver too. They are cowards because they are afraid that if they are nice, they won’t be accepted by others.”
I nodded. That really did make sense! I said goodnight and went to bed.
The next morning, Pa hadn’t moved from his chair. George was in the kitchen cooking scrambled eggs and bacon. Pa opened his eyes and smiled at me. “Those men really did hurt you last night,” I stated.
Pa shook his head. “I’m just a might sore is all, son. Look Mark, I want you to eat then get your Sunday clothes on. You can ride into church without me today.”
I did as he said. But as soon as I rode into church I saw Doc Burrage going inside. I ran up to him and asked him to go by the ranch and check on Pa. I told him he had been kicked in the side a few times and had bruises all over. Doc nodded and went to get his bag.
I quickly rode back home after the service was over. Doc’s buggy was still sitting outside. I walked in and found Pa lying on a cot in the living room. He was groaning, telling doc to leave him alone. I leaned against the door and folded my arms. “He sure makes a lousy patient!” I declared.
Pa turned his head toward me. He pointed a finger right at me. “I’ll get you later!” he said. “OH,” he suddenly moaned as another pain shot through him.
Doc shook his head. “Luke, two of these ribs are cracked! If I hadn’t caught it you could have been in a world of trouble. You should think your son. He may have saved your life.”
“Oh,” Pa said.
I smiled and shook my head at Pa. “You’re welcome!” I declared, laughing.
Pa stayed in bed for only a few days. But he found that there were reasons the doc insisted he take it easy for several weeks. There were many things he couldn’t do, and was suddenly happy to have George around the ranch. I tried to get out of going to school but George told me he could care for Pa. Pa only grumbled, saying “Pa can care for Pa! Now, get to school, boy!”
The day came three weeks later for George to leave. He helped find someone who would work the ranch for a few weeks. He said the man would be ready to start the next morning. He had a job waiting for him in Santa Fe, starting his very own newspaper. He had talked to a man in town who wanted a partner, and he was willing to teach him everything. George was happy!
That night, George helped Pa to the table. Pa told me to go get a box that I had brought home just two days before. I gave it to him. After we finished eating, he handed George the box. “This is just a little something to…thank you for our friendship.”
George opened the box. “It’s a harmonica!” He exclaimed. He took it out and looked at it. “It’s brand new! Why, you can’t-“
Pa held up a hand. “It wasn’t just me. Mark said everyone in town was asking about you. Several of us pitched in and bought it for you. It’s a way of showing you that you are welcome back in North Fork anytime.”
George put the pipe organ to his mouth and began playing. I couldn’t sit still anymore and suddenly got up and started dancing around. Pa laughed at me, shaking his head.
That sure was a fine night! The next morning, George left early. He thanked us both for everything before he started into town on the horse he had recently bought. “You’re new hand should be here soon to help you. When I met him in town yesterday, he was down on his luck – kinda like me – and I thought he needed the kind of tough love you showed me. I think he’s ready for it, Mr. McCain.”
They shook hands and George left. I put my arm around Pa as he slowly made his way back inside. I had just gotten him settled back in his chair when there was a knock at the door. I went to open it. My eyes about popped out of my head when I saw who it was.
He stepped inside. His hat was in his hands. “I want to tell you how sorry I am for the cracked ribs…Mr. McCain.”
Pa gasped. “Buddy Link!”
Yes, this is the end of the story.
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
The Baby Sitter
around The McCain Ranch