“Mark, it’s time to go to school!” Pa announced again.
I was sitting on my bed counting out ten dimes. I held up a finger as Pa stepped into the bedroom. Pa cleared his throat. I looked up and shook my head. “Now you made me lose count, Pa! I need a dollar!”
“A dollar for what?” Pa asked as he came over and grabbed me by the arm, lifting me from the bed.
“Uh…well, the new magazine’s in! Freddie bought it yesterday – said the “Gunfighters of the West” story was really good this month! I just gotta have it!”
“Mark, aren’t you a little old to be spending your hard-earned money on garbage?” Pa asked.
I gasped as I stared at him. “Why Pa, these are true stories about gunfights that’s really happened! These aren’t some made-up stories!”
“Mm Hm…Well, I’ll have my own story to write if you don’t get out that door and get to school RIGHT NOW!” Pa announced.
I held up my hands. “Alright, Pa! Alright. I’m going.” I grabbed a bunch of dimes to count out later.
Pa grabbed my hand before I could lift them off the bed. He cleared his throat and dug in his pocket. “Here.” He slapped a dollar bill in my hand. “I’ll just take ten of your hard-earned dimes off your hands.” He gave me a hard smack on the back side. “Now, get going, boy!” I hurried out the door, Pa right behind me. “Oh Mark.” I turned to look at Pa. “Uh…don’t get that magazine until…after school.” He raised his eyebrows at me.
I gave him a surprised look. “Now Pa, do you really think I’d look at that magazine during class?” Pa just looked at me. “Yes Pa. “
“And don’t forget your chores after school!” Pa called.
I couldn’t wait for school to be out! The minute Mr. Griswald dismissed us I was out the door. Several of the kids headed over to the General Store. Some had worked hard for their money. We all saved up all month and looked forward to the day the magazines were delivered on the stage. I suppose we were like a hoard of bees on a honeycomb the way we all swarmed into the General Store. And being older than the others, I suppose Pa would expect me to wait for the younger children to get their magazine.
Finally, it was only me and Jeff Connors left. There was only one more magazine! Jeff and I looked at each other. Then we turned and looked at Mr. Pate who was currently running the General Store. “It appears that we have a problem,” Jeff said.
I nodded. “It appears so.” I turned to Mr. Pate. “How did this happen? You didn’t order as many?”
Mr. Pate shook his head. “I’m sorry, boys. I guess more of the kids wanted them this time.” He pointed his pencil at me. “You know, you boys aren’t the only ones I buy these for! I’m gonna have a lot of ladies in here looking for the latest recipes, and since you took all the magazines, they aren’t going to have them.” He turned and walked away.
“So,” Jeff folded his arms.
I did the same. “Yeah. So.” I nodded my head.
“There’s one magazine left.” Jeff pointed to it.
“Yep. Only one magazine left.”
“I’ll flip you for it,” Jeff suggested.
“I tell you what…You are two months older than me. So I reckon that settle it.” I nodded toward the magazine.
“Settles what?” Jeff asked.
“Well, you know…the youngest gets to buy magazines first. So…”
I tied up my horse to the hitching post outside our ranch house. Pa walked out of the barn. “Well, who’s the featured gunfighter this time?”
I groaned. “They say it’s Johnny Drako, but I don’t know that for sure.”
Pa put his hands on his hips. “Where’s your magazine?” he asked.
“Oh, that dumb ol’ Jeff Connors! Why, I have a good mind to punch him in the nose for what he did! Why, I have a good mind to go right over to the Connors ranch and drag him-“
“Mark…” Pa stopped me sternly. “Where’s your magazine?”
“There was only one left. Jeff and I both had our dollar ready. So…we settled it like grown men…” Pa raised his eyebrow at me and waited for me to speak. I cleared my throat as I turned toward the barn. “We arm-wrestled for it.”
“You…” Pa choked on his word as he tried to keep from laughing. “You arm wrestled?”
I turned and gave him a hard stare. “Yes sir, I did!”
Pa covered his mouth with his gloved fist. “And uh…I assume you uh…didn’t win?”
“Ah Contraire…I DID win!” I declared. “He cheated!”
“Cheated?” Pa’s eyebrows popped up as he studied me intensely. Again, he smiled. “How?”
“Well…” I cleared my throat. “He uh…he uh…” I cleared my throat again. “Gee Pa, I gotta go get my chores done if I’m to have supper tonight!”
I heard Pa laugh. “Let me guess…he pretended Lucille Bennet was standing behind you?”
“Oh Pa!” I hurried to the barn to do my chores.
“Son, I must warn you that arm wrestling was never a good trait in our family.” Now he tells me!
Freddie took a bite of his apple as he thought on my request to borrow his magazine. “You did finish reading it! I know you did!” Freddie just looked at me and chewed. He took another bite of apple as he pondered my question. “Well now…” he said as he swallowed the contents in his mouth. “I tell you what, Mark…You help me whitewash the fence Saturday and I’ll think about it.”
“Whitewash the-“ I rolled my eyes. “Oh come on, Freddie!” Freddie shrugged and turned to walk off. “But remember that Johnny Drako is rumored to be close by.” He shook his head. “You could talk all about the gunfight that made him famous if he ever rides into North Fork…”
I folded my arms and heaved a frustrated sigh. “I thought you were my best friend, Freddie Toomey!”
“Oh, I am! That’s why I’m not gonna charge you a dollar!”
“A dollar?” I squeaked. “For a USED magazine???” I rolled my eyes. “Now Freddie, next thing I know, the next time I ask to borrow your pencil, you’re gonna charge me the two cents it cost you to buy it new in the store!”
“Naturally,” Freddie answered.
Just then, Mr. Griswald announced the end of recess. Freddie turned to go inside. I hurried up to him and grabbed his shoulder to stop him. “Alright, alright! You win.” I sighed. “How…big is the fence?”
“It’s the one around our house, Mark. Pa’s been too busy working ever since we moved back and it’s in bad shape. So, he told me I could do it for pay.”
“You mean you’re getting PAID to whitewash that fence?” I asked as we started up the steps.
“Of course! You think I’d do something like that for nothing?” Freddie rolled his eyes.
I stopped and stared at Freddie as he hurried inside. I don’t know, but it seems I’d just been horn swaddled!
I hurried with my chores Saturday morning. Pa shook his head as he watched me rush around. He was of the opinion that I was being horn swaddled too! As we ate lunch, Pa cleared his throat. “You know, son…I used to be really good friends with Johnny Drako.”
My fork stopped before it reached my mouth. My mouth just stayed gaped open as I stared at Pa. Slowly, I lowered my fork back to my plate and leaned forward. “You what?”
Pa nodded. “He saved my life once in fact.”
“Really? You mean you’re friends with the most famous gunfighter in the world?”
Pa raised an eyebrow at me. “You know Mark, Johnny wasn’t always a “gunfighter.” He was…and still is…a man. And if you want the truth of it, I could be classified as a gunfighter in some folks eyes too. I’ve had many gunfights.”
“You didn’t go asking for them though, Pa. You avoid it whenever possible.” I shrugged. “You’re not a gunfighter! You’re The Rifleman!”
“And Johnny doesn’t, huh?” Pa cleared his throat. “Mark?” I looked up at him. “Have you ever asked Johnny how many of those gunfights he asked for?” We just looked at each other. “What they write in that magazine of yours…it’s just stories. There are some facts in there, but their buried so deep in the fiction, it’s hard to dig them out.” Pa wiped his mouth as he stood up. “Think about that as you wash up the dishes.” Then he picked up his rifle and left.
I sighed as I gave the fence one last stroke. “There!” I declared as I put the brush back in the paint can. “It’s all done!” I was tired! I wiped my forehead with my hand. As I took it away, I realized that I had just wiped paint all over my forehead. I groaned inwardly. “Oh no!”
Freddie laughed at me, of course. I took his brush from his hand and splashed it in the can. Paint splattered all over his front. “Mark!” Freddie yelled.
“Then don’t you laugh at me!” I ordered.
Freddie picked up the paint brush and splattered it toward me. Paint went all over my face and hair. “Freddie!”
So, I did the same thing to him. Before we knew it we were in an all-out paint war. “Hey!” We suddenly heard from behind us. Freddie and I froze. Slowly, we straightened up. Mr. Toomey was standing there with his arms crossed, glaring at us. “EXACTLY what the devil is going on here?” He walked toward us. “Freddie, I believe I asked you to whitewash the fence…not each other.”
“I did, Pa. See.” Freddie swiped his hand toward the fence. “It’s all done!”
“So I see.” Mr. Toomey circled us as he looked us up and down. “And it seems I have myself two mighty fine posts to go with this fence. I-“
“What in blazes-“ We turned to see Pa coming up. “I came to get my young man, but all I see is a young boy…” Pa shook his head as he began circling us. “I thought the deal was for you boys to whitewash the fence…not each other!”
I shook my head and looked at Freddie. “They all say the same thing!” I declared. Pa cleared his throat and rolled his eyes at Mr. Toomey. “Well…I came to invite you all into town for supper at the hotel, but uh…”
I looked at Freddie and grinned. “Last one to the creek gets shotgun!” I yelled as I raced off like a bullet leaving Pa’s rifle.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” Freddie called.
As we washed up at the creek, I asked Freddie when I could borrow the magazine. He promised me that as soon as we got back up at the house, he’d get it for me. As we were in the creek washing, Pa and Mr. Toomey showed up. “Here, Mark!” Pa threw something in the water. It was soap. “Mrs. Toomey said for you two to wash behind your ears too!”
“How old does she think we are anyhow?” I asked.
Pa smiled. As he lay my clothes down on a stump and sat down. “Well son, normally, I’d say you were 14. But when you and Freddie get together…”
“Oh Lucas, they’ll need each other when they grow up. You and I both know the trials in store for them. They both have good, strong heads on them. They’ll be something solid they can hold on to.”
Freddie and I smiled as we looked at each other. The time we’d spent apart was hard. When he came back, we picked up where we left off. Maybe we acted a little childish, but it’s like Pa said…I’m not quite at shaving age yet, so he reckoned I could act a little childish once in a while – it was only natural.
It was always a fun time when the Toomey’s and McCain’s rode into town together. As it turned out, neither one of us boys got to ride shotgun. Instead, Freddie and I rode in the back of the wagon with the other Toomey kids and talked about the “good ol’ days.” Pa heard us and turned in the backseat of the buckboard. “You kids haven’t lived long enough to have good ol’ days!” he declared.
We laughed at that, but I reckon we had some things to remember anyhow.
On the way, I thumbed through the magazine. I read a few passages of the story. But Freddie finally stopped me. “Mark, you’re gonna ruin the whole story if you do that!”
“I can’t help it!” I declared. “I can’t wait to read it!” I thumbed through it some more. “I won’t be able to pay attention to the sermon in the morning just thinking about this story waiting for me at home. I don’t guess there’s a chance Reverend Jamison went out of town?” I said this quietly so Pa wouldn’t hear.
“Not a chance, son,” Pa declared. Boy, I think his hearing got better as he got older! From the tone in his voice, I’d say it was time to change the topic of conversation anyhow.
But as we ate, the topic came up again. Miss Lou joined us. I grinned as she sat down beside Pa. Freddie and I exchanged a grin. “Ow!” I jumped as I felt a kick in my shin from under the table. I didn’t dare look at Pa. I knew he had seen the look that passed between Freddie and me, and he was warning us to cut it out.
So I cleared my throat. “Hey Freddie, did you know that Pa and Johnny Drako used to be friends?” That sure got everyone’s attention in a hurry! The adults and kids turned and stared at Pa.
“Is that true, Lucas?” Miss Lou asked in a questioning voice.
Pa cleared his throat as he sat down his fork. “Yes. It is true. It was many years ago before he was known as a gunfighter. I went one way and…he went another.” Pa glanced at me. I guess I had again stuck my foot in my mouth.
“How long’s it been since you’ve seen him?” Freddie asked.
“A…long time,” Pa answered. “Like I said, he went one way and I another.”
“I heard he was over in Santa Fe,” Mr. Toomey said.
“Yes,” Pa shook his head. “I got a letter from Sam Buckheart the other day. He said Drako’s being there has caused a little trouble among the men who hang out in the saloon. There hasn’t been a gunfight…yet.”
Oh, why not?” I asked. “I thought he was the fastest gun in the West. Nobody can make him put it down!”
“Many gunfighters have been declared the fastest gun in the West, son. Many have come…and gone.”
Mrs. Toomey cleared her throat. “Could we talk about something else, boys? Gun fighting…I think you really should discourage your sons from reading that trash, Frank.” Mrs. Toomey said to her husband.
The rest of the meal was eaten with us kids being silent. The way our Pa’s looked at us after Mrs. Toomey spoke gave us the inkling that silence would be golden tonight. We rode back home in the dark. We got to singing old church hymns and laughing gaily as we pulled into the Toomey’s yard. Pa and I said goodnight and started for our horses. “Oh Mark…” Pa’s voice was reserved. “I…think you should give Freddie the magazine back…Don’t you?” Pa raised an eyebrow telling me this wasn’t a question open for discussion.
I looked down at the magazine in my hand and sighed. “Yes sir.” I gave Freddie the magazine back.
“Oh, but-“ Freddie started.
Mr. Toomey held out his hand. “And I think, son, that you should give me the magazine…for safe-keeping.”
“More like burning the trash,” Freddie mumbled as he gave Mr. Toomey the magazine without any further argument.
I sighed and shook my head. I wanted badly to declare, “women!” But I knew better then to do that. If Mrs. Toomey hadn’t spoken up about the evils of the magazine, we would have never had to give up the magazine.
I was quiet as we started home. Pa shifted in his saddle to look at me. “She’s right, you know.”
“Oh Pa, that magazine’s just a story! I mean, Ivanhoe’s a story, and that doesn’t mean we’re gonna go out killing people or something!”
“That’s true, son. But listening on you and Freddie talk, you’re taking those ‘stories’ as fact instead of fiction…aren’t you?”
“I know they’re mostly made up, but-“ I stopped as Pa cleared his throat again.
“Do you?” I didn’t answer or argue anymore as we rode for home.
Now, you’d think that would be the end of it and the story would be over, but not so! At lunch on Monday, Freddie returned with big news! I was just sitting under the tree “looking” at a magazine somebody had brought. The fact they brought it to school was none of my doing…Freddie suddenly walked up and sat down on the bench beside me. “How much is a piece of news worth to you?”
I closed the magazine and straightened up on the bench. “Now Freddie…Pa don’t like it much when I go around punching people in the nose, and Lord knows I’ve been in trouble punching you in the nose a time or two…I was over at your house whitewashing your fence for four hours and I didn’t get anything in return…So don’t you even start on me-“
“What if I was to tell you that Johnny Drako’s in town?” Freddie rushed out.
I stared at him. Then I narrowed my eyes. “I’d say you’re trying to horn swaddle me again, Freddie Toomey!”
“What if I was to tell you that I saw him and your Pa talking in front of a window just a while ago?” Freddie asked then.
I rolled my eyes. “Then I’d say you are walking in your sleep!” I stood up and started to walk away. Freddie rushed me and grabbed me. “Besides, you don’t even know what Johnny Drako looks like!”
“I do now. I saw him!” Freddie insisted.
“Oh Freddie!” I started toward the school house, knowing lunch was almost over. “Besides, you better stop going into town every day. You’re Pa’s gonna catch you one of these days and skin you for sure!”
“Oh, I’m not scared of him,” Freddie brushed me off. “Come on into town with me right now! I’ll prove it to you!”
“My Pa’s in town, Freddie! You just said he was!” I shook my head. “I’m not going to go in there and get my Pa all riled at me!” I started up the steps.
“But it’s true! We can go there after school then!”
“Nuh uh!” I declared with a swift shake of my head. “Before I left the house this morning, Pa made it very clear that I was to be home exactly one hour after school let out – and I wasn’t to go through town!”
But I did wonder about what Freddie told me all day. The more I wondered, the more I wanted school to be out. By the time school did let out, I made a bee-line for my horse and rode out. Now, I’m not saying that I believed Freddie exactly, but I was anxious to find out who Pa had been talking to up in the window that morning.
I tried to act casual as I rode into the yard and tied my mare to the hitching post. Pa came out of the barn with his pitchfork in hand and greeted me.
I asked Pa how Blue Boy was doing.
“He’ll be healed from that stone bruise in a few more days, but if it abscesses, it’ll probably be two weeks. Riding the mare’s not the same as Blue Boy is it?”
“No sir. Any special chores you have in mind for me today?” I asked.
“Then, you heard.” Pa said as he looked me in the eye.
“Heard what?” I tried to ask casual.
Pa shook his head. “Son, I can read you like a book! You have that exciting gleam in your eye. Let me save you some time. Yes, Johnny Drako’s in town and no, we’re not making a trip into town today.”
“Really, Pa? Johnny Drako’s in town?” I asked. “What does he want? Is he here for a gunfight?”
“Mark!” Pa turned around. “I want you to ride out and check the cattle. After supper you can start on your homework.”
“Alright.” I licked my lips. “Say Pa…about Johnny Drako…”
Pa turned. “Now Mark!”
“Right.” I hurried off to check the cattle. By the time I got my regular chores done, Pa had supper ready. After the blessing, I started in on Pa. Pa tried to answer my questions, but soon tired and told me to stop talking and eat. Then after I got the dishes done, I started on my homework while Pa worked on cleaning his rifle.
But I couldn’t concentrate. I finally threw my pencil down in frustration. “I’m erasing more than I’m writing!” I declared.
Pa turned around and looked at me. Then he stood and put his rifle back in its holder. He walked over to the table and sat down. “You know son, I think it’s time you and I got something straightened out.” Pa folded his hands on the table and looked at me. “Gun fighting occurs because someone picks up a loaded gun and points it at another person with the intent to kill.”
I looked up at him. He studied me for a moment silently then stood up and poured himself a cup of coffee. I looked down at my book. “Yeah but, its a way of getting rid of the bad guys, Pa,” I argued.
“Now Mark, you know better than that! You’re not a child after all. When you were eleven or twelve, I let you get by with that way of thinking. But at your age, you’ve seen enough gun fighting to know that a lot of innocent people die. Not only the one engaged in the gun fighting, law enforcement officers, and outlaws…but innocent bystanders also. Every time I’m forced to gunplay, it rips a little piece of my heart out. There’s nothing glorious about it, and I’ve taught you that your whole life.”
“I know!” I could hardly swallow now. “It’s just…” I didn’t finish my sentence as I looked up at Pa. I watched his eyes. I could see him struggling with a decision.
Finally, he gave a slight nod. “Do you have a reason to go into town tomorrow?” Pa asked quietly.
“Well uh…” I thought on it. “I could use a new pair of pants…and a shirt. Oh, I need some new boots too. My belts wearing a little thin too, Pa. I think we really should go to the store.”
“Alright, son. I’ll meet you down by the school at 3:00.” Pa stood up. “Now, you have exactly 30 minutes to get your lessons done.”
“Thanks, Pa!” I declared as Pa turned from the door. “Thanks!”
Pa didn’t smile. He just stood there and watched me do my homework. I heard him sigh. I knew he had expected me to take his lecture seriously, but it was all just too exciting for me!
Sure enough, Pa was there to greet me the next day. We rode into town together. Micah was standing outside his office when we got there. Pa and Micah started small talk. I was anxious to meet him! “Pa, can I?” I suddenly asked excitedly.
“Can you what?” Pa played dumb!
“Take a look!”
“All right, stick your head in,” Pa permitted me. “But you meet me back at Lou’s.”
I thanked him and hurried across the street to the saloon. I knew Pa wouldn’t allow me inside, so I just stood at the window and stared! He just sat inside alone at a table playing cards and drinking whisky. He wasn’t quite what I had pictured. I figured he’d be surrounded by people or sitting at the bar like a lot of gunfighters do – not sitting off by himself playing solitaire.
Suddenly, Drako turned and looked at me. I smiled, happy to be this close to the subject of the latest gun fighting story. But suddenly, he motioned for me to come inside. I turned and looked over my shoulder. Not seeing Pa, I slowly walked through the swinging doors.
I’d been inside this saloon a couple times before, but Pa had been with me and he wasn’t happy about my being there. I suspected he wouldn’t be happy about my being in here today either.
"Have you ever been to the zoo boy?" Drako asked me.
His question surprised me. I wasn’t expecting that! "No sir.”
"Well they've got one in Kansas City. People come from miles around and they go straight to the monkey cage and they stand and they stare and they feed them peanuts.” I knew what he was saying. I guess I sort of was treating him like a monkey in a cage. "What's your name boy?"
"Lucas's boy?" I nodded. "I know your father, I call him my friend.”
He took his gun out of his holster. "Touch it!" I just stood there looking at him. I didn’t understand why he was telling me to do that. If he knew my Pa, he should know that my Pa wouldn’t approve. "Go on, pick it up!" I picked up the gun and looked at it; then laid it back down on the table. "You did right. Now remember, just because you can pick one up doesn't mean you have to marry it. Understand?"
I nodded and smiled. "Sure...but I've handled lots of guns before."
Drako nodded, then went on to explain. “From the first time, I’ve never been able to put it down.”
Proudly, I stated, “Well yeah, but you’re Johnny Drako. And nobody can make you put it down either!”
“Johnny Drako, fast gun,” Drako mumbled.
“Yep,” I smiled.
“Mark, do you know the name of the man that first had that honor?”
I shook my head.
“Neither do I. But I know that the man that took it away from him buried him.” His words were like a kick in the gut. I suddenly understood what Pa was telling me last night. “Now, go home boy.”
I turned and walked outside without saying a word. I stopped outside the window and peered in at Drako. Drako looked out at me. We just looked at each other. Another part of my childhood had just died.
I slowly walked down the street and sat down outside Miss Lou’s. “Mark?” I looked up to see Lou standing there. She gave me a concerned look as she slowly walked over to me. She sat down on the step. Smoothing out her skirt, she asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I just lost a big chunk of my boyhood,” I answered. Lou just looked at me. The way her eyes were…soft and kind…they made me go on. “My whole life, I always heard about how great my father was with a rifle. I always thought he was a glorified gunfighter- killing to protect the innocent. He never really…shot to kill. Pa’s always spoken harshly to me about glorifying him when he’s had to use his rifle against a man. I never saw it as…”
“Killing?” I heard from behind me. I heard reservation in Pa’s voice. Slowly, I stood up and turned around. Pa didn’t look happy. He turned and looked at Lou. “We’ll be in there to eat in a little. Can we get a table?”
Lou stood. “Yes.” She started for the door. “Lucas, be gentle. He’s just a boy.”
“He’s a young man, Lou,” Pa answered her harshly. Guess Pa really was remembering that I was no longer a child. Pa took my arm and motioned for me to sit back down. He pulled the chair in front of me so he could look me straight in the face. “I’ve had quite a time since Drako’s gotten here, son.” Pa turned and looked toward the saloon. “Seems that it’s not going to get better until he leaves.” Pa sighed as he rubbed his head. “Mark.” Pa looked up at me and placed a hand on my arm. “I want to know…what you’re thinking.”
I lowered my head. “Honestly? I don’t know. I mean…I’ve always known that guns kill people, but it was never…real. Does that make sense?” Pa gave me a slight nod, but remained silent. I sighed. “I mean…I’ve watched you…” I sighed. “Why do we do it, Pa?”
“Do what, son?” Pa asked softly.
“Idolize gun fighters. You’re right. They kill people. All this killing…it’s so senseless…” I shook my head. “God didn’t intend it this way. Guns are used for protection from wild animals – animals that don’t know better…and to hunt for food…but against man…”
Pa sighed. “What made you finally see the truth about what I’ve been teaching you all these years?”
“Johnny Drako. You were right, Pa. I wonder how many of those killings were kinda like you – his hand was forced. He told me that the first person who had the name of a fast draw got it taken from him by the man who buried him. That got me to thinking that…that you or Johnny or Micah…you could draw your last fast draw today…It sort of scared me to think on it, you know?” I sighed. “I reckon kids just don’t see the cold, hard facts – that a bullet kills. It’s nothing to laugh or joke about…”
Pa and I just looked at each other. “I’ve killed, son. That’s a realization you as a…man…has to come to terms with. Against my will, men have died by my hand for no sane reason.” Pa sighed. “Son, you remember when you were…oh…I guess you were ten. This gang came into town and held Micah and Hattie hostage in the general store. He challenged me. Do you remember why?”
I nodded. “Because he wanted to know if he was still good with a gun.”
“He wanted to know if he was still brave…strong…” Pa leaned even further forward. “Do you remember why I went out there to fight him?”
“Because he threatened to kill Micah and Hattie.”
“That’s right. And I knew that if I didn’t fight him…he’d kill them. As a man, I couldn’t let that happen. He didn’t die by my hand that day, but many men just like him have. But son, there’s one thing I want you to remember…I’ve never killed anyone that didn’t force my hand, and I’ve never shot to kill…remember that.”
“Pa?” Pa raised his eyebrows and waited for me to go on. “You think you’ll ever be able to retire you gun?”
He didn’t answer me at first. He turned his head and looked down toward the saloon. “You know what Drako wants? He wants to retire his guns. That’s why he came here. He just wants to rest. You see son, somewhere along the way, he won a gunfight. Somebody comes into town and challenges him and he has to fight them. Over and over and over…Now he…well, he wants to stop. He hopes he can.” Pa sighed. “There are three gun fighters in the saloon now who just rode in. They…they heard Drako’s here. They won’t let him retire. Those men who are challenged will retire their guns some day. Do you…want me to tell you how?”
“No sir. I think I know.” I hated to think about it. It made me sick to my stomach.
“You see, son…Death never…rides alone.”
Those words echoed through my head all night. The next morning when I got up they were still there. I looked at things through a different light. My Pa’s talent with the gun now didn’t appear to be a talent – but a curse of sorts. I understood…again…why he made me wait on learning the talent. He was afraid – afraid that I would get as good as he was or some stranger would find out I was his son and see me carrying a rifle and challenge me, and either way, that could get me killed. He didn’t want to see me always chased by someone who wanted to have the reputation of killing the great Rifleman. He wanted me to stay innocent…safe…
I gathered my books up and started out the door. Pa looked at me, but said nothing. He knew there was nothing left to say. This was a reality I came to on my own – and it was one I’d have to learn to live with – like so many other realities that were part of becoming a man. I walked toward Blue Boy and shook my head as I offered him a lump of surgar. “Sometimes I wish that childhood lasted longer…I wish..”
“No since wishing for things that can’t happen, son.” Pa spoke with an edge in his voice. I looked up at him. He gave me an apologetic smile. “You’re not the only one effected by your manhood lessons, son.” I turned to saddle the mare. “Oh son…that new mare you’ve been riding needs shod. Ride her in today and leave her at Nils, huh? I’ll meet you in town after school.”
“Yes sir.” I turned to ready my horse.
“Son…” I turned back toward Pa. He was grabbing his ax to go chop some wood. “You’re feeling pretty low right now, but this lesson…you’ll forget it and learn it a few more times before it really sticks. Just be prepared.” I watched Pa go. I wasn’t really sure what he meant by that.
That day, the kids’ glorious ravishing about gunfighters and outlaws didn’t seem as exciting. Freddie sensed something was wrong. He questioned me on it, but I wasn’t ready to reveal my revelation to anybody – I just didn’t think he was ready to hear it anyhow. It was sort of one of those things you have to learn in your own time…in your own way.
And my new realization suddenly made me react differently that afternoon. When I went to the livery to check on my horse, I found a man there taking him. He threw me a dollar and told me he was buying it. At first, I was angry and started to go after him. But Nils stopped me. We went to find Pa.
Pa wanted to go after him for what he did, and normally that’s what I would have wanted. But now…today, at least, I remembered our conversation from earlier. Men killing men for senseless things – like a horse or a gun…And that other thing Pa told me about – about the only way a gunfighter could put down his gun. I couldn’t…no, I wouldn’t let that happen. I wanted them to forget it.
And maybe for my sake…Maybe because Pa had told Micah about my latest step into manhood…Pa and Micah agreed to allow it to stand if he made no further moves.
But you know…the more I get to thinking on it, the more I realized that they knew that wouldn’t be it. The man would force their hands.
I watched as Pa and Micah went out onto the street. I knew there were three of them…four if Johnny Drako decided he wasn’t Pa’s friend. I remembered what Pa told me about a death never riding alone. Pa would never be left alone – not until…
I watched as Johnny Drako walked out of the saloon. He walked up to Pa, then turned. “Death never rides alone,” I mumbled. “They’ll never leave Pa…or Micah…or Johnny alone. Not until…”
Nils put a hand on my shoulder. “I know, son. It’s a tough realization to face. The burden is heavy. Your Pa doesn’t want to do what he’s doing right now. But he has no choice because they-“
“-give him no choice…” I finished for him.
I watched as the men stared each other down. Then I watched as the three gunmen got on their horses and rode out of town. I slowly smiled and let out my breath I was holding. I didn’t even realize I’d been holding it.
Pa turned and walked toward me. Johnny walked right beside me. “Well son?” Pa said as he stood in front of me. “Was giving up your horse worth it?”
“A horse for your life, Pa? I’d give up any horse in the world for you.” Pa looked at Johnny. I turned to him. “About what you said yesterday…It’s what I needed to hear. You and Pa…you have a heavy burden to bare. I wish I could take some of it from you.”
Johnny reached out and laid a firm hand on my shoulder. “Yes…well, I’m afraid that’s a burden neither your father nor I would ever want you to bare. It’s one we’ll carry for you and others that don’t carry our burden.” Johnny pulled out his gun and studied it. “You know Mark McCain, I hope that…well, that someday we won’t have to wear these to stay alive. My wish for you is to never wear one of these.” I watched Johnny slowly slide it back into his holster. He turned and looked at Pa. “I’m sure your father feels the same way.”
“Join us for supper, Johnny?” Pa asked.
Johnny nodded. “But first…there’s something I have to do. Mark, come with me?”
I looked toward Pa. Pa nodded. I followed Johnny down to the livery. He asked to see the horses Nils had for sell. Johnny checked them out, then threw Nils some money. “I want to do this, Mark. Your horse was taken on my account. I want you to have this horse.”
“I can’t,” I answered. “Even if I wanted to…Pa wouldn’t…”
Johnny smiled. “Mark, I don’t know how much longer I have on this earth. I know how much of a sacrifice you’ve made this week…learning the hard lesson that you learned. I want you to have this horse. It’s very, very important to me. You understand?”
“I was going to give it to him,” Nils started.
“Thanks, Mr. Swenson, but this is something I have to do.” Johnny turned to look at me. “Mark, I saved your father’s life once and today…I think he save mine. This is my thanks to him. Please, Mark. Take it.”
I nodded and smiled. We walked back up to the hotel to have supper together. Before Pa and I left for home, Johnny asked us to come back in the morning to see him off.
I wished he would stay, but he couldn’t. It was sort of sad to ride into town early the next morning to see him off.
As he was leaving, Pa asked him where he was headed. "North maybe...or west. Or just keep on ridin'. You got a nice quiet town here...I'm gonna leave it just like I found it." He then shook my hand and said good-bye.
Pa shook his hand. “I hope you find a quiet place too Johnny."
"I will Lucas...same quiet place every gunfighter finds." Johnny then mounted his horse and rode out of town.
"I wish him luck Pa."
Those words were the last I’d heard Johnny say, and they would forever haunt me. I wondered if I’d ever see him again. I hoped I wouldn’t hear about the death of Johnny Drako – then listen to kids glorifying his murder.
Because now I knew the truth. And I knew that every gunfighter needed the same thing: prayer.
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
I Take This Woman
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
Quiet Night, Deadly Night
around The McCain Ranch