“Hey Mark, Wanta go fishing after school?” That’s what the note said I just received from behind me. I turned and nodded to Billy.
“Mark McCain?” I turned around. Mr. Griswald stepped down from the platform and slowly walked toward me. He held out his hand. I gave him the note.
Mr. Griswald read it. “See me after class.”
I turned and gave Billy a dirty look. He never ceased to getting me into serious trouble! Mr. Griswald dismissed class. Then he sat down at his desk. “Mr. McCain, would you come up here please?”
I went up front. “The note was given to me. I-“ I started.
“I don’t think you should be going fishing tonight, Mark.” Mr. Griswald looked past me, over my shoulder. I turned to see my father standing in the back with his arms folded. “Do you recall what your history homework is for tonight?”
“Um…” I tried to remember.
“No, of course you don’t because I made that announcement while you were reading this.” He held up the note. Pa walked up and took it from him.
As he opened the note, I casually asked, “Why are you in town, Pa?”
“Trouble at the ranch.” He read the note. “Billy gave this to you during class?”
“Yes sir.” I turned to Mr. Griswald. “So you see, sir, it’s not my fault. I-“
“Now hang on, son. Did you or did you not open this note and read it?” Pa asked.
“Of course I did but-“
Pa held up his hand to silence me. “What is his history homework?”
Mr. Griswald stood up and closed his books. “He has a history test tomorrow.”
“You aren’t going fishing,” Pa stated. “In fact, I want you to get on home and start on your chores so you can get an early start on your homework.”
“Yes sir.” I thought I was pretty lucky to get out of there with my skin. I didn’t get punishment assigned by either man, which was pretty good considering.
“And tell Billy you can’t go fishing for a whole week!” I heard Pa call after I got out the door. “Tell him not to pass you anymore notes in class – it’s bad for his fishing partner.”
Well okay, so maybe I didn’t get off scot free!
I did Pa’s bidding. I studied for my test for awhile before bed. At 9:00, Pa announced it was time for bed. “Did you get all your homework done?”
“Yes sir,” I answered. I recalled the last history test I had and how I had forgotten about it. That resulted in a poor grade and an entire two weeks of restrictions added onto my month of restrictions that I was already serving. I was sure not going to flunk that test.
That’s why Pa found me sitting on the porch the next morning. After I finished my breakfast, Pa told me to get on to school. But after I went outside and found my horse already saddled, I sat down on the porch to go over my dates just one more time. When Pa got out there, I guess he was a bit surprised to see me still sitting out there when he had sent me off to school. “Mark, son,” Pa called.
I looked up from the step I was sitting on. “Huh?” I asked absent-mindedly. Luckily Pa didn’t catch my rude address of huh.
“You better hurry or you’ll be late for school.” Pa always frowned even when I was one minute late for school. He used to use the excuse of it costing him a dollar a week, but now I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I had to stay after and that took away from my chore time or something…
“Oh, just one moment, Pa,” I said as I went back to studying my dates.
But Pa showed me no mercy! “I thought you did all your homework last night.”
“Oh I did,” I answered. “But we’re having a history test today and I want to be sure of all my dates!” I went back to studying, but Pa suddenly bent down and grabbed me roughly by the arm.
He pulled me up. “You better be sure to get there in time to take your test,” Pa ordered. Now, when he grabbed my arm like that it meant no arguing and no more dawdling. “On your way,” he ordered in that stern, no-nonsense voice of his.” I wasted no time!
When I got to school, I was indeed five minutes late. “Well, our wood pile is getting a little low, Mr. McCain. It looks like you’ll be fixing the problem for us after school today.”
Great! That’s all I needed! So after school that day, Pa was outside waiting for me. But when he saw me come out and head for the shed for the ax, he walked up with his arms folded. “I take it you…uh…didn’t make it to school on time this morning after all, son.”
“Uh…not quite, sir,” I answered.
“You’re in town again today, Pa?” Pa nodded. “You never did tell me what happened yesterday.”
Pa nodded. “I had some business to take care of in Micah’s office.”
I suddenly remembered him saying that there was trouble at the ranch. “What sort of trouble was at the ranch yesterday?”
“I saw a man murdered, son,” Pa answered bluntly.
“One of Hazlitt’s men. Corey Hazlitt, his son, did it.” I wanted to know more. Pa shook a hand towards me. “Never mind, Mark. You go ahead and get to your wood chopping. Meet me at Milly’s.”
I figured that’s why he had come into town. I grinned as I watched him walk off, but knew if it was too busy in the General Store, she’d put him to work carrying things out for the customers. I can remember a few times when Milly made him do such a thing. And if ever there was a person who could boss Pa around and get a “Yes ma’am” as an immediate answer, it was Milly. She may look sweet and gentle – and she was most of the time. But when she wanted something, she could get downright Feisty! But then I suspect that’s one of the things Pa liked about her. He said there was only one other woman who could boss him like that – and he had married her!
It took me over an hour to chop Mr. Griswald enough wood. I wish I was as big and strong as my Pa. Then it wouldn’t take me any time at all do chop that wood! But Mr. Griswald finally came outside as he locked the door behind him. “That’s enough, Mark.” I wiped the sweat from my face with my kerchief as he handed me the water ladle. “You did a right fine job. Now perhaps we’ll see you at 8:00 sharp tomorrow?”
“Oh, no sir!” I answered. Mr. Griswald raised his eyebrows at me. “You’ll see me here at 7:45 at the latest!”
“Well, I get your wood chopping expertise ever couple of weeks or so, then I get my favorite pupil to come early enough to watch the younger kids before school for at least two or three days after that.” Mr. Griswald smiled. “We have a pretty good system going, Mark. Let’s not stop it now! I don’t like to chop wood.”
“Aw shucks, Mr. Griswald!” I shook my head. “You know I end up chopping the wood anyhow. Even if I did show up to school on time, when your wood starts getting low, Pa makes me come over here on a Saturday and chop the wood for you as payback for educating me!”
Mr. Griswald laughed at that. We both knew it was true. I didn’t much mind – but I didn’t like it cutting in to my Saturday. That’s what I told Mr. Griswald. “So, I expect I’m getting something for my hard work when I arrive a few minutes late for class every now and then.”
Before another word could be said, I jumped on my horse and rode into town. When I walked into the General Store, Pa suddenly straightened up. He was leaning over the counter smiling at Miss Milly who was also leaning over the counter. They were talking in low voices. I could tell it was nothing for my ears because Milly blushed and Pa straightened up really fast the moment I walked into the door!
“Got a customer,” I announced with a grin as I hurried over to the candy jar.
But Pa smacked my hand. “Not today, boy. You don’t get rewarded for making me stay an hour late waiting on you to finish your punishment when I have lots of work waiting for us at the ranch!”
I cocked my head to one side as I studied the two of them. “Well,” I stated as I crossed my arms. “It don’t look like you suffered much.”
“Doesn’t!” Milly corrected me. Then she wagged a finger at me. “And you watch your tongue, young man!”
I laughed. “Yes ma’am!”
I didn’t remind Pa that the wood-chopping chores was one of my “unspoken” chores that somehow I was always told to do, though I would opt for some other boy in the school to do it once in a while. If I told Pa what I told Mr. Griswald, he’d probably find some other “things” that I needed to do around the school. Pa’s philosophy on doing for others was to do so cheerfully or do more!
When we got home, Pa sent me straight to my homework. He wanted my help to cut down a tree for firewood right after supper. And cut we did! I was so bushed by the time bedtime came that I just fell right into bed! I groaned as Pa pulled my boots off. Then he reminded me to get undressed for bed. I did so with much groaning. Then I plopped into bed and rolled over as Pa tucked the covers up around me. “Goodnight, my young….”
Whatever else he said went unheard. I was fast asleep!
The next morning, I was still exhausted. “Boy, now that I’m helping you out more, Pa, I feel muscles in my body that I’ve never felt before!”
Pa laughed as he filled my plate with scrambled eggs and sausage. “I expect so, son.”
“How did you ever do all these things without my help?” I asked.
Pa sat down the coffee pot and walked over to the table. “Well son,” he started as he sat down. “I tell you what…the only way to answer that question is to say you’ll find out when you’re a father yourself!”
“Oh no I won’t!” I declared. Pa raised his eyebrows. “Well, we’re partners, remember? We’ll be working together!”
Pa laughed. “You’ll have your own house…and your own firewood to chop!”
When I got to school that morning, Mr. Griswald handed our history papers back. “B+” was marked at the top. Also, in fancy handwriting, I read, “Good job! I knew you could do it!”
I smiled up at Mr. Griswald who did flash me a quick smile of pride. But he didn’t want me to see it so it quickly disappeared. It was too late, though – I’d already seen it – and I was proud!
So as soon as Mr. Griswald dismissed us for lunch, I raced into town. I had to show someone my good history test grade! This was the highest grade I’d ever made on a history test! I ran into the General Store. “Milly!” I called.
But I stopped as Pa and Milly turned around and stared at me. “Oh, hi Pa.” I put my hands on my hips. “Don’t you ever work at home anymore?”
Pa turned and looked at Milly. “I had a…uh…halter to get fixed,” Pa answered as he scratched his nose.
I grinned. “A halter, huh?” Pa nodded. “Pa…um…the last time I checked, the blacksmith is down the street.”
Pa walked over to me and playfully smacked me on the backside. “Why did you come racing in here, son?”
“Oh,” I suddenly remembered the test. Then I grinned from ear to ear. “Oh, Pa, look!” I held up my history test.
“Good boy!” Pa declared. “Tell you what, son. How about if we celebrate by having lunch at the hotel today?” Pa looked at Milly.
“Well, I can’t – I’m expecting a shipment to come in. But you two have fun.”
Pa nodded. “I’ll see you later, Mil.”
I smiled at Pa’s pet name for her. He usually didn’t say it when I was around, but every once in a while he let it slip. As we sat down to eat, I couldn’t help myself. “Pa, when are you gonna ask her to marry you?”
Pa’s head snapped up at me. “Mark!” He scolded me. He looked around. “Uh…hurry up and decide what you want to eat.” He shook his head as he buried his face in the menu.
I grinned. I was still grinning as I gave the waitress my order. Pa took the test from me and studied it. “I’m mighty proud of you, son.”
“Thanks!” I declared as I grinned from ear to ear again. I love it when Pa’s proud of me. Here lately, it seems that he’s been proud of me then he’s been disappointed. I guess I was finally learning how to be a young man!
I asked Pa about the man that had been killed. “Will you have to testify at the trial?”
“Of course, son. I’m the only one who saw Corey do it,” Pa answered.
I couldn’t help remembering back a few years. Pa had been a witness to a murder then too. He was going to have to travel away to testify at a trial, declaring what he saw. I remembered how I worried then – how everyone told my Pa he’d never make it back alive. I suddenly shuddered as I remembered turning back toward the ranch on my way to school because a feeling told me to. If I hadn’t been there…”
“What are you thinking about, Mark?” Pa asked suddenly.
“Oh, nothing,” I answered as I started eating again.
I looked up into Pa’s stern eyes, knowing I was to answer him. I quickly repeated my thoughts to him. “Can I go with you to the trial?”
“No, son. You have school.”
“Yes, but-“ I started. Pa shook his head and told me to eat.
When it was time for dessert, the waitress and Pa started discussing the fact that fresh green apple pie was on the menu for dessert. I loved Apple pie, but when I was over at Milly’s store the day before, I had noticed the fresh batch of rock candy in her jar. I often have cravings for different candies, and this week it just happened to be Milly’s rock candy.
Pa informed me proudly that since I did so well on my history test, he’d allow me to have both the candy and the apple pie. But the craving I had was pretty big, so I negotiated my way into getting a double batch of rock candy. Pa slapped the coins on the table and I hurried out the door. Pa stopped me, reminding me to bring back the change. He thought he knew me pretty well!
Milly smiled at me as I walked in and placed my order. “Pa said I could,” I assured her as she gave me a suspicious look.
Then I hurried out the door because I definitely didn’t want to be late getting back to school – it would probably be blackboard washing today – and I hated that task nearly as much as I hated chopping the wood!
That evening after school, I got home just as Pa was packing up the wagon to head out to the woods. Yesterday we had cut the tree down. All afternoon, Pa worked at chopping it up. Now we had to gather it.
We worked awhile quietly. Then I started getting hot. Pa had stripped his shirt off a long time ago, and as I started sweating heavier, I began taking mine off too. I started asking Pa about how he’d feel being on the witness stand. I remembered being on one a long time ago when I had to stand up against my Pa when an old family friend was accused of murder. I couldn’t imagine sitting up there, though, knowing that your testimony would hang a man. I’d be nervous!
“Nothing to be nervous about if you tell the truth,” Pa stated sternly.
Then I got to thinking. It sure would be exciting to sit in on a trial and watch it. “Pa…uh…I’d sure like to go there and see ya.”
I pretty much knew what his next words would be. “It’s a school day, son.” He had assured me of that fact earlier today.
I was ready for that. “I know…but you’ve always said yourself that I should try and learn everything I can about the law, right?”
“That’s true. But…uh…the three R’s are important to.” Man, he was good! I’m beginning to think that parents take some special class on how to be ready for excuses or something! “Right?”
From that tone in his voice, I figured that was clearly stated and I would be doing myself a favor by dropping the whole subject. “Yes sir.”
Then we heard a horse. I looked up to see some men approaching. One of them claimed to be Corey Hazlin’s big brother. At the mention of that, Pa grabbed the canteen. “Mark, we’re out of water, son.”
I knew he was sending me away for a reason. I didn’t like it so I hesitated, but Pa told me to go on. I didn’t like his sending me away like that because I knew that meant only one thing – there was trouble; and there were circumstances surrounding this case that Pa didn’t want to tell me about.
I obeyed him, knowing I had no choice. I ran to the well just over the rise to fill the canteen.
By the time I got back, the men were leaving. I ran up to Pa and gave him the canteen. “What did they want?” I asked.
“Just to talk, son.” But Pa wasn’t fooling me. I knew there was more that was going on then talk. I didn’t like the way he was acting. He was hiding something from me. I wanted to argue with him – to remind him that we tell each other everything. But Pa was raising me not to backtalk, and just now, I didn’t feel like breaking that rule was a smart idea.
So we got back to work. But it wasn’t long before Pa again stopped working and turned to me. “Mark, I want you to stay close at all times, son.”
His words upset me. I wasn’t a child, yet here he was suddenly treating me like one. I didn’t know what to think about this. “Don’t go anywhere unless I know exactly where you are going. Is that clear?”
I suddenly felt like I was ten years old again – younger then that, actually. I felt like I was six and had to hold my father’s hand to cross the busy street of North Fork. “But I-“ I started. I didn’t understand. Had I done something wrong? Was I suddenly being punished like I had just a couple months ago when my rule-breaking had gotten me in all the trouble? Had I failed proving myself to be mature enough somehow?
“Is that clear?” Pa’s voice held something indescribable in it. I was hurt. What had I done wrong? Why was I suddenly a little kid again?
“What’s wrong, Pa?” I asked suddenly. I could see it in his eyes. I could hear it in his voice. I felt like he was disappointed in me.
“Nothing’s the matter. I just want you to do as I say. Alright?” I nodded. But in my heart, it wasn’t alright! Pa usually explained to me exactly what I had done wrong and why. But just now, he had given me strict orders without explaining why.
I was quiet after that. We gathered up the rest of the wood in silence. When we got home, I started to go out to the barn and do my chores, but Pa took my hand and led me inside. “We have to fix supper now, son. We’ll do the chores in the barn together later.”
“Pa, I-“ I started.
“Why don’t you start peeling those vegetables while I get the meat ready. We’ll have steaks tonight.”
That was it. I was to follow his orders with no further explanation. I did as told and we started eating. Pa seemed upset. “Pa, can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, son. Why do you ask?” Pa shot out at me.
I felt hurt. I popped the last bite of food in my mouth then stood from the table and began washing dishes. Pa took a cigar and went out to sit on the porch.
When I was done, we went to the barn. Together we bedded down the stock and laid down fresh hay. Pa’s face looked upset and disappointed. He sighed as he blew out the lantern and put his arm around my shoulders. “Let’s go in, son.”
As I got ready for bed that night, I started thinking on a way to earn Pa’s respect and trust back since I had apparently lost it. It was then that I remembered that the fence down in the pasture needed mending. I’d seen Pa work on it often enough that I figured I could mend it without any trouble. As I fell asleep that night, I thought of the surprise that would be waiting for Pa the next morning.
I went to milk the cow first thing the next morning. As I sat in the barn doing my work, I felt Pa looking out the window every few seconds. When I brought the milk inside, he breathed a sigh of relief and went back to working on breakfast. “Pa, can’t you talk to me?” I asked.
Pa didn’t look up from where he was mixing the eggs. “About what son?” He was being casual. But when he lifted his eyes to me, I saw the same look – the same stare in his eyes.
“Well…” I thought about what I wanted to talk to him about. I really had no idea, and from the look on his face, I felt I should know. “Nothing…I guess.”
After breakfast, I told Pa I was going out to do my chores. “Where?” Pa asked so suddenly that I spun around and stared at him.
“Well…I’m going to clean the barn a…and put the horses out to pasture, Pa,” I answered.
“Don’t worry about the horses, son. Just clean the barn.”
I turned to leave. “Mark?” I stopped and turned around. “Make sure you stay in the barn.”
I couldn’t believe what was happening! Why was Pa suddenly smothering me? Even at the age of ten he didn’t hold me this tight. I remembered when I was seven years old and being able to go out exploring in the town we were traveling through unless the town was known to have a bad reputation or something.
That’s why when I was done with my chores in the barn, I went out to work on the fence without asking Pa’s permission. I figure that whatever I had done could be righted if I just showed Pa that I really COULD be responsible. If I got the fence done – a chore Pa had announced earlier that we would work on today together – then he’d know that I was responsible enough to be left alone.
I had worked for only a few moments when I turned to see Pa coming up. I turned and smiled at him, showing I was hard at work on the fence. “What are you doing here?” Pa asked in an angry voice.
I tried to ignore it. I really tried to stay cheerful, hoping he’d realize how wrong he had been to ever restrict me for no reason. “I’m working on the fence that you said-“ I started.
“I told you to stay home!” Pa continued yelling angrily. “Didn’t I? Well, didn’t I?”
The smile suddenly disappeared from my face. It was clear that my decision wasn’t a good one after all. I didn’t know what to say. “Yeah,” I nodded.
"You were told to stay close! I've been out lookin' for you! I've been lookin' all over! You think I enjoy worryin'? How do you think I felt when I couldn't find you?”
Pa was yelling. I mean, he was really mad. I knew I had disobeyed him, but his orders were too controlling. They were smothering me! I hated seeing my Pa like this! I hated hearing that disappointing voice and seeing that look of anger on his face. I didn’t understand this – or him – at the moment.
“I’m sorry,” I stated. I was sorry – about so many things at the moment. I just wished I knew what was going on.
I don’t think Pa even noticed how horrible I was feeling. When I was bad and deserved it, I didn’t much mind his yelling. But as I stood here, I didn’t feel like I deserved his angry words. "Never mind being sorry, the damage is done,” he yelled some more. He got right up into my face. I couldn’t even look at him! "I gave you an order and you did just the opposite! Do you think I gave that order just to hear myself talk? Well, do you?"
“No.” I didn’t even put the sir on the end of it. Personally, I didn’t feel like he deserved it. I knew I just had to wait until he calmed down before I could talk to him – I mean really talk to him.
"Well then, why did you deliberately disobey me?" Pa demanded to know.
How could I make him understand? “I didn’t mean it that way, Pa,” I stated regretfully. “I guess I was just thinking of the surprise.”
“What surprise?” Though his voice was quieter, it still held a lot of anger.
“Well, the fence needed fixin’ for quite some time and…and I wanted to get it done. I thought you’d be pleased.” I looked up at him, showing the regret on my face. Somehow, his face suddenly seemed softer. “I’m sorry.”
For the first time since this started, Pa put a hand on my shoulder. The anger had left his voice. “It’s alright, son. It’s alright,” Pa said in a softer voice. But his voice still held something in it – I can’t really describe what.
Pa kept his arm around me as we started walking back. “Come on. Let’s get back to the house and pack your things. I’m taking you over to Glen Cove to stay with to stay with Todd and Iva Wilson for a few days.”
His announcement really got to me then. “What for?” I asked.
“It’ll only be for a few days, son. It’s better that way,” Pa stated. He didn’t answer my question.
“It doesn’t matter why, son. It’s just gonna-“ Pa suddenly stopped. He studied me for a moment. "We've always got along fine Mark, because we spoke the truth to each other. No secrets, nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to hide. Looks like I'm forgetting that. Son, this was my fault, even getting excited the way I did and yelling like that, that was my fault. I just want you to know that it wasn't because I didn't trust you. It was because I was so worried. I guess there's no reason for you not to know what is really wrong.”
Pa started the horses back toward the ranch. He told me that the two men that rode up while we were loading the wood yesterday were the brother and cousin of Corey Haslem. He said they threatened him not to testify against them. They threatened to kill him. They even threatened to hurt me.
Now I understood the real reason for Pa’s fears and actions. There was nothing that scared him more then to have my life threatened. I’d often seen and heard Pa threatened with no problem. It didn’t even seem to phase him. But when it came to me, Pa could change into a different person.
I understood why he wanted to send me away, but I still didn’t agree with it. I dismounted my horse outside the house. “So they threatened me, Pa. I don’t think they’d do anything.”
“I can’t take that chance, Mark,” Pa stated as we started inside.
“But Pa! I just can’t-“ I stopped as Pa put his hands on his hips.
“Mark, nothing you say will change my mind. No matter what – protecting you is my first responsibility. I was wondering what to do with you on Wednesday.”
Pa went into the bedroom and got down the carpet bag. “I want you to put your Sunday jacket and tie on, son.”
“Why?” I asked. I didn’t understand any of this!
Pa turned and glared at me. “Listen, boy. I have enough worries on my mind! I don’t need to stop and answer every little question you have!” I took a step back as he yelled again. Pa sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Listen Mark, sending you away isn’t something I want to do but-“ Pa suddenly looked up at me and saw that I had my back turned. He reached out and grabbed my arm. “Sit down here, boy.”
He put his arm around my shoulders. “Listen Mark, I want you to stay here with me. It tears me apart to do this, but…but son, I have no choice! When I became a father 13 years ago, I made a sworn oath to God that you would ALWAYS come first – no matter what. You are first and everything else is second. Well son, if I were to put you first on Wednesday knowing you were here, I couldn’t…” Pa sighed as his eyes filled with tears. “I couldn’t tell the truth in the court room.”
I couldn’t look into Pa’s eyes anymore. I stared down at the floor. I couldn’t pretend that I understood because I didn’t. “Being a father must be tough,” I stated.
“It is, Mark.” Pa squeezed my shoulder. “But I wouldn’t give it up for anything. That’s why…why I have to send you away so I CAN do the right thing. You understand? This is a struggle I’ve been having inside myself since I was threatened yesterday.”
“Okay Pa. But-“ I held up the tie. “Why the tie and Sunday jacket?”
Pa smiled. “Because you’re going to visit someone’s house. And anytime you go somewhere, you should look your best.” Pa handed me the jacket. “Besides, son, it’s been two years since you’ve seen Pete and Charlie.”
“Yeah,” I groaned. “Pa, they’re such pests! Can’t I stay with-“ I turned to look at Pa’s face. My question died.
“You just be on your best behavior and don’t be putting wild ideas in the twins’ heads, ya hear?” Pa demanded.
“Oh Pa, would I-“ I turned and looked at him. His look said I would.
It took us quite awhile to get there. They lived a ways out of North Fork. Pa liked me being gone that far away – he didn’t figure they’d bother me way out here. When we stopped in front of the Wilson’s house, Pete and Charlie came bounding down the front steps. “Mark! Mark!” They both cried happily.
“Oh man!” I rolled my eyes.
“Remember what I said, son,” Pa reminded me. “You very best behavior!”
I heard the warning in Pa’s voice. I just hoped I could heed it. These two boys were very big pests! “Mark?” I turned to see Pa staring at me. I nodded. I didn’t want to say yes sir since that was the same as a promise. “Well?”
“Yes sir,” I finally answered with a heavy sigh.
As soon as I dismounted my horse, two eleven year old boys tackled me in the dirt. “Now twins! You mustn’t badger the lad so as soon as he arrives. Why, after such a long trip, I’m sure he must be exhausted!” Mrs. Wilson hurried up to me. “Here, let me help you, Mark!” She started brushing the dirt off of me.
“Lucas, what are you doing here?” Mr. Wilson asked. Pa motioned for him to walk out to the barn.
I smiled down at the two devilish little smiles. “Now,” I said as I folded my arms. “I’ll be here for a while, so let’s set some ground rules. There will be no tackling me, no dirty tricks, and absolutely no twenty questions in a row!”
“Now Mark,” Mrs. Wilson said as she put an arm around me. “You were there age only two years ago. You were just like them.”
“No way!” I declared.
Pa walked up to us then. “Son, be good. Remember what I said.”
I turned and looked at the boys. “Yes Pa.”
Pa and I just stood there staring at each other. I didn’t want him to leave. Mr. Wilson suddenly cleared his throat. “Uh…let’s go inside, boys.”
Pa and I turned as we watched the family go inside. I turned back to look at Pa. “You sure I have to stay?”
“Yes, son.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “Mark, I…I love you.” I nodded. His hand squeezed my shoulder. He lifted his other hand onto my other shoulder. We looked into each other’s eyes. “I’ll be back for you next week, son.”
“Thursday?” I asked as I searched his eyes.
Pa sighed. “I…I don’t know, son. I…It may be Friday or even Saturday. I don’t want you to worry.”
I looked down at the ground. “You know you can’t just say that, Pa. I’ll worry anyhow.”
“I’ll miss you,” Pa said suddenly. His voice was broken.
I suddenly lifted my head and nodded. The next thing I knew, Pa had me in his arms and was hugging me close. I hardly got the chance to saver the moment before he planted a kiss on the top of my head, turned, mounted his horse and left without a backward glance.
“Bye, Pa,” I said in a broken voice as I watched him ride away.
After Pa left, I turned and went into the house. I could smell chicken frying in the air. “Hey Mark, after supper can we play with that bat?” Pete asked.
“Not tonight,” I answered as I slumped down in the chair.
“Will you take us fishing tomorrow, Mark?” Charlie asked then.
“I don’t know,” I answered with a sigh.
“How old are you, Mark?” Pete asked.
I lifted my head and looked at Pete as I started taking my jacket and tie off. Now that Pa was gone, he’d never know I didn’t leave them on! “I’m thirteen,” I answered.
“You still in school, Mark?”
“You have to do homework, Mark?”
I rolled my eyes. “Boys, Mark just got here! Why don’t you leave him be!” Mr. Wilson ordered. He sat the gravy on the table. “I’m sure Mark will be more then happy to play a game with you after supper. Won’t you Mark?”
I groaned as I looked at the two weasels. I know Pa wouldn’t approve of me thinking that way, but I couldn’t help myself! “Don’t you two have to go to bed early tonight?”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday!” Pete declared.
“I know!” I said. “Don’t you have to go to church?”
“Oh Mark!” Charlie broke out into laughter. I failed to see the humor in my statement though. “There’s no church way out here! Preacher only comes here once every couple months!”
“Oh. Well, I’ll do some chores tomorrow then – to pay for staying here.”
“Chores, on purpose?” Charlie asked. “You loco or something?”
I put my chin on my fist. “Will be by the time Pa comes to rescue me!” I mumbled.
“What, Mark?” Charlie asked.
“Oh….uh…no. When you get bigger you’ll understand.”
“Well, Pa don’t like chores being done on Sunday, Mark. Says it’s the Lord’s Day. God rested on the seventh day, so we should too!”
“Oh.” I sat up hopefully. “That means you sit in your room and study your Bible quietly, right?”
“Pa reads us a story from the Bible, then we sing some hymns with Mama. Then we play the rest of the day. We mustn’t run and shout out a respect for God – but Pa don’t mind us fishin’.”
The boys talked to me all through out supper that night. They were amazed to find out I was still in school and still had a few years left. I offered to help with the dishes, but Mrs. Wilson insisted I go outside and play with the twins. That’s the last thing I wanted to do, but Pa would skin me if I disobeyed – so outside it was!
“Hide and seek!” Pete declared.
“Aren’t you getting a bit old for that game?” I asked.
“I’ll count to twenty. You two hide!” Pete announced. I guess that was my answer. So for the next hour, I was stuck playing hide and seek. I was certainly glad when Mr. Wilson announced it was time for the boys to go to bed!
The Wilson’s were fortunate in that they had a rather elaborate house. The twins shared a room and I was able to claim the guest room as my own for the next few days. The bed was comfortable – wasn’t simple like the one I had at home. It was a bed with a mattress on it that had springs! I was certainly living high!
I didn’t even wake up at the cock’s crow the next morning. I felt something jump right on top of me. I groaned as I opened my eyes and saw a younger set of eyes staring straight into mine. “Morning, Mark!” Pete shouted at me.
I groaned. “Good morning, Pete.”
“Pa said we can go fishing straight after lunch! He said he might be a joining us!” I sat up in bed and stretched. “Mark, after Bible time, you and me and twin go out and dig for worms, huh? Yeah?”
“Dig for worms?” I groaned. “Right.”
After breakfast, Mr. Wilson read from the Bible. Then we had to sing songs. Pa never made me sing songs at home, but I was expected to reflect on the reading for most of the morning on Sundays. I smelled something wonderful cooking in the kitchen. Mrs. Wilson grinned, stating she was fixing her chicken and dumplings. “I have to get up really early in the morning to fix them,” she stated. “But my men just love ‘em!”
“Come on, Mark! Let’s go dig for worms!” Pete begged as he pulled on my arm.
We dug for worms. “Mark, why do worms live in the dirt?”
“I don’t know, I answered as I turned over another shovel full of dirt and waited as they pulled worms out.
“Mark, do ya know that if you break a worm in half like this-“ Charlie broke a worm in half. “-That they’ll grow back into two worms?”
“Yes, I know,” I answered as I gave them another shovel full of dirt.
“Hey Mark, you reckon-“
“Twins!” I stopped and shoved the shovel way down deep in the dirt. “Would you both stop talking?” I ran a hand across my sweaty forehead. “If you talk, the worms will crawl down in the dirt and you won’t be able to find them at all.”
“Oh Mark!” Charlie rolled his eyes. “We’re eleven years old – not nine!”
“So?” I shrugged my shoulders.
“Lunch is ready!” Mrs. Wilson called. I must say that I was happy about that. While we sat at the table, the Wilson’s ordered their sons to stay quiet so they’d eat. But directly after eating, Mr. Wilson sat back in his chair and chewed on his pipe. “Well, I expect you boys have fishing plans.” The boys jumped up and raced out the door. “You three just be back by supper!”
I did go fishing, but I put the boys down the creek a ways, convincing them we’d have better luck if we fished far apart from each other. My convincing worked and I quietly sat there fishing. I didn’t even really care if I caught anything, but I did send up a prayer or two for my Pa. I was worried. I knew the threats must have been pretty bad if he felt he had to send me away.
“Four more days,” I muttered. “Four more days and then I’ll get to see Pa.”
“Hey Mark!” I jumped as Pete destroyed the blissful silence that was around me for a very short time.
I turned and glared at him. “What do you want?” I asked.
“Mark, if worms live in the dirt, how do fish know what they are?” I just shrugged. “You reckon it hurts the fish when they bite the hook?”
“I reckon,” I answered with a sigh.
“You reckon it hurts ‘em when we slice off their heads?” Charlie asked.
“Yep,” I answered.
“Well then, why do we kill fish if it hurts ‘em so?” Charlie asked.
I sighed. “I guess for the same reason a lion kills a zebra or a bear kills a deer.”
“Why’s that?” Pete asked.
I rolled my eyes. “It’s just the circle of life. We all have to eat meat to stay alive.” I turned and looked back over the water. These boys were really annoying me. I was about ready to tell them to get lost and this was only Sunday. I knew I asked lots of questions, but at the age of eleven, I never asked dumb questions like this!
How would I ever make it until Thursday?
Monday: I got up and went to eat breakfast. I figured the boys would have lessons to do. Mrs. Wilson smiled at me. As I sat down to eat breakfast, she cleared her throat. “Boys, I’ve decided not to make you do your lessons for the next four days while Mark is here. You may have the week off.”
I closed my eyes and groaned as the boys cheered. I started eating as the boys started making all these plans. “Uh…” I interrupted them. “Pa says I should do some chores to pay you back for letting me stay here.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary, Mark,” Mr. Wilson stated.
But I held up my hands. “No, no. Pa’d skin me if he knew I was here all this time and didn’t do any work. You need wood chopped? The barn cleaned?”
“Yeah, we’ll help ya, Mark.” Charlie piped up.
I held up my hand. “Uh…that’s alright. I work alone.”
I looked up to see the parents look at each other, but they said nothing. I finished off my milk and took my dishes to the sink. “I’ll wash the dishes for you if you like.”
“Oh. No, Mark,” Mrs. Wilson protested. “That’s my job.”
“Alright.” I nodded. “I want to get to that chopping.”
I found the ax inside the shed and started to head to the woodpile. Mr. Wilson walked up to me and put an arm around my shoulder. “Let’s wait on that, son. You and I need to talk.” He said it so firmly that I thought I was in trouble.
He led me into the barn and sat me down on a crate. “Mark, do you remember a couple years back when you were only eleven?”
“Well…of course,” I answered.
“You had a good friend in North Fork you used to follow around all the time. His name was Joey Merrick. He was brutally murdered when you were twelve.”
I nodded. “Yes, I remember him. He was a good friend.”
“Well, I was living in North Fork at the time, and I would talk with him some. He’d tell me about how when you two went fishing together, you’d talk the whole time asking questions like…oh…how do the fish know about worms, does it hurt the fish to get hooked…” I looked up at Mr. Wilson. “Then when you two went to check your rabbit snares, it was question after question. “Why does the rabbits keep getting trapped?...Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? Where is God?” Mr. Wilson raised his eyebrows.
“How…how do you know?” I asked.
Mr. Wilson smiled. “Because I was good friends with his father and after leaving you at the end of the day, he was tired of hearing all the questions. He wished he could go fishing in peace and quiet for once. He wished you wouldn’t follow him everywhere he went.”
“Oh.” I never realized I was annoying.
“You know what Joey’s father told him, son?” I shook my head. “He told Joey that you looked up to him. You didn’t have a big brother and Joey was like a big brother to you. You held him high in respect, else you would have never asked the questions.”
I sighed, knowing what he was saying. “I can’t believe I was ever that annoying!” I groaned.
“Well, you were.” Mr. Wilson patted my shoulders. “Mark, they hold you high in respect. It’s good for them to have someone to look up to for a few days. I think you should humor them. You’ll soon be gone and they won’t have anyone.” Mr. Wilson raised his eyebrows at me and waited for a reply.
I sighed. “Yes sir.”
The boys ran outside after I got back to chopping wood. “Pa says we should stack the wood after you chop it.” I nodded and continued chopping. “Pa only has to hit it once or twice before it busts in two, Mark.” Again, I nodded but said nothing. “Pa hits it harder then that, Mark!”
That’s the way it was all day long. I was glad when bedtime came that night!
Tuesday morning: Again, I ate breakfast. The boys decided they wanted me to take them to explore the woods. I looked at Mr. Wilson and knew what was expected of me so I agreed. “We go into these woods all the time, Mark!” Charlie announced.
I smiled at them as we continued walking. The boys stopped at a tree and saw some missing bark. “Mark, what happened to that tree?”
“A bear scratched it,” I answered.
“Why Mark?” Pete asked.
“Maybe he was sharpening his claws,” Charlie answered.
“No, Charlie,” I laughed. “He was marking his territory. You see, a bear wants to own a piece of the woods and female bears can come for mating.”
“Mating? That’s how they have babies, huh?” Pete asked. I nodded. “How’s that happen?”
I stopped and turned to Pete. “Now, that’s a question only your Pa can answer!” I suddenly wanted to change the subject. “Oh, look up ahead. There are some toad stools!”
“Toad stools?” Charlie asked as we walked up to some mushrooms. “Those are just mushrooms, Mark!”
“Yes. But they make great toad stools.” I pointed to some fungus growing on a tree. “See that there. Those make good toad stools for frogs also.”
“Pa’s always too busy to come walking with us in the woods. Your Pa ever walk with you in the woods, Mark?” Pete asked.
“Not too much,” I answered. “We’d go hunting and such, but there wasn’t much time for us just to walk through the woods together.”
“How’d you learn all this stuff about the woods then, Mark?” Charlie asked.
“Well, my Pa taught me some but…” I suddenly looked down at them and put my hand on each of their shoulders. “But a good friend of mine named Joey taught me a lot too.”
“Mark, I’m glad you came for a visit! Even if it’s cause your Pa’s worried bout ya getting hurt!” Pete stated as he gave me a loose hug.
“How’d you know that?” I asked.
“Pa told us first thing when you were saying bye to your Pa. He said we needed to keep your mind off your worries.” I stared at Pete, then at Charlie. I couldn’t help allowing a big smile to cross my face. “Have we kept your minds off your worries?”
I nodded. Now that I thought about it, I had been so busy entertaining these two little boys that I had forgotten all about my problems! “You know something, twins.” I said as I put a hand on each of their shoulders. “I think it’s time we set some rabbit snares!”
“Oh boy!” They declared.
Wednesday: “Trial’s today, ain’t it Mark?” Pete and Charlie were sitting in my room while I got dressed. They wanted me to go on a horseback ride with them. I told them I would this afternoon.
“Yep,” I answered. “It’s today.” I turned. “Your Pa tell you that too?”
“Course, Mark. Pa tells us everything. He said that we should tell each other everything. Secrets only hurt us and we have the right to know the truth ‘bout stuff. That way we’ll know how to handle things when we’re older.”
I sat down on the bed to pull my boots on. “Your Pa’s right.”
After breakfast, the boys helped me with the chores. As I started putting down fresh hay, Charlie said, “Mark, that’s not the way Pa tells us to do it.”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Gather up the old hay. He makes us start on that end.” Charlie pointed to the other side of the barn.
“Why?” I asked, becoming annoyed again.
“Yeah, Mark!” Pete declared. “You’re doing it all wrong!”
I rolled my eyes. It was ten o’clock in the morning and I had listened to Charlie and Pete tell me I was doing things wrong for the last two hours. “I’ll do it my way!” I declared.
“I’ll tell Pa and he’ll make you do it over again!” Pete said. “Ha ha ha!”
I know I shouldn’t have, but I was sick and tired of listening to their mouths. I turned and threw a pitchfork full of soiled hay on the boys. “Ewwww!” They cried as they ran from the barn to tell their father.
I shook my head and went back to work. At least I could work in peace and quiet now. But soon, I heard the door open. “Mark?” I turned to look at Mr. Evans. “Did you throw a pitchfork full of hay at those boys?”
“Yes sir.” I sighed. “They were telling me I was doing everything wrong! I-“
“Pete is down at the well getting cleaned up. I want you to go apologize to him now.”
“Oh, but-“ I started.
“This afternoon, I think you should work with the boys gathering walnuts. We have a small walnut orchard over the rise and there’s plenty on the ground. They’ll show you how to bag them up so we can take them into North Fork to sell next week.” Mr. Wilson looked at me sternly.
I sighed. “Yes sir.”
“And Mark, I know you think it’s hard to put up with them, but children can be annoying. It’s harder for you because you’ve been an only child and haven’t had to deal with little fellows following you around. This is a good lesson for you – one I’m sure your father expects you to learn in a mature manner.”
“Yes sir.” Mr. Wilson started to leave. “Sir?” He turned. “You…aren’t gonna tell my Pa about this. Are ya?”
Mr. Wilson smiled. “About the hay? Of course not.” He started to walk out, but turned from the door. “Mark, it’s not the hay and manure that hurt the twins. It was the expression on your face.”
I finished my chore then walked out into the yard. The twins were playing quietly with their dog. I walked up to them and bent down to give the dog a pat. “What’s his name?” I asked. The boys said nothing. I looked up at them. “Listen, I’m…sorry I got angry with you. I shouldn’t have done that. Truth is…you’re right. I realize now the practicality of cleaning the hay from the other direction. Our barn is turned opposite yours – I should have realized.”
The boys looked at each other. “What do you think, Pete? You think he’s really sorry?” Charlie asked.
Pete looked at me as he narrowed his eyes. “I don’t know…”
I smiled at the little devils. “Alright alright. You’re Pa came to the barn and gave me a talkin’ to. He said I have to help you gather the walnuts. And since I’ve never gathered walnuts before, I reckon you’re the boss.”
That got them. They turned and grinned at each other. “Pa said we’re the boss?”
I sighed, suddenly realizing how much I regretted throwing that hay on the scheming devils. “That’s what he said alright,” I answered.
“Oh boy!” Pete declared.
They got the burlap sacks form the shed while I hitched up the horses. Charlie came over to help me, telling me he and his brother could hitch up the team all by themselves now. I nodded as we worked together. “I’ll drive!” Charlie declared.
When we got to the walnut orchard, Charlie pointed me toward some trees and told me to get to picking them up. “We have to crack ‘em?” I asked.
“Course not, silly!” Charlie answered with a laugh. “We sell ‘em like this. They send ‘em to a factory that does the work for us.”
“Well, but if you crack ‘em yourselves, you wouldn’t have to do that and could sell them directly to the folks.”
“Mark, this is a farming ranch! We ain’t got time for all that extra work! What do you think we do all day?” Pete asked.
“You have to do lots of chores?” I asked then.
Charlie nodded as he continued working at picking up the walnuts. “After Ma does our lessons, we got chores until supper. After supper is our free time. Pa says hard work’s good for boys. Every year he makes us work a little harder.”
“Oh.” I shook my head. “So your Ma teaches you right at home?”
Pete stopped picking up walnuts and turned around to glare at me. “Mark, if you keep asking us silly questions, we’re never gonna get this work done! Pa said we should be back by 6:00. If we ain’t, he’ll use the strap!”
I went to picking up walnuts, suddenly realizing that I was the one being annoying now. Boy oh boy, but I reckon Mr. Wilson was right after all.
We had been working for a couple hours. As I bent over to pick some walnuts up, I suddenly felt walnuts flying through the air hitting me in the head. I ran away in shock and turned to look up into the tree. Charlie sat up in the tree laughing so hard I thought he was going to fall out of the tree! He pointed and said, “You were right, Pete! It made him run!”
I threw down the sack. “Why you little devil!” I started yelling as I ran toward the tree. “Just you wait until I get my hands on you!”
“Okay!” Pete called. “But if you lay a hand on my brother, Pa will give you the strap!”
I stopped and turned to look at Pete. “Yeah, I reckon he would!” I declared.
“Mark, you ever had a whipping?” Charlie asked.
“Oh I remember a couple when I was little, but Pa always gave me extra chores or other punishments to teach me a lesson.” I went back to picking up walnuts. “I got a switching at school once. It hurt something awful.”
I turned and glared at Charlie. “Alright now, we’ll just call this even! I reckon I deserved it. But you do that one more time, Charlie Wilson, and I’ll lick you good – even if it means the strap for me! Ya hear?”
The twins looked at each other and laughed.
That evening after supper, I thought it would be a good idea to teach them how to play kickball.
Thursday: It had rained Wednesday night, so as we went outside to stack the wood, the twins saw puddles of mud all over. We stacked the wood. As the last piece of wood was going into place, Charlie dropped it in a puddle, splashing his brother in the face with mud.
Our laughing at how he looked got Pete riled up. He scooped up a big glob of mud and threw it towards Charlie. But Charlie ducked at the last minute and I got it right in the face! “Why you…”
I scooped up a handful of mud and threw it right at Charlie because he had ducked. Before I knew it, the three of us were rolling in the mud, engaged in a big battle of mud pies. We had been going about it for quite awhile when we suddenly heard an angry voice yell. “Just what the devil is going on here?”
But at that very moment, I had aimed a mud pie at Charlie and let it fly. Charlie slipped in the mud and my mud pie sailed right over him and hit MY FATHER right in the face. “Oh man!” I gasped as I closed my eyes and tried to pretend I didn’t see what I saw. “I did it again!”
I looked up to see not only my Pa, but Mr. Wilson as well. They both stood with their feet a bit apart. Mr. Wilson’s arms were folded in front of him. And my Pa? He was wiping the mud from his face. Regardless, they both held expressions of annoyance and anger. But I think Pa’s face held a bit more anger then Mr. Wilson’s. “Oh…” I stood up and grabbed my hat. “H-hi, Pa! You’re back!”
The twins stood up too. “Oh yeah…H-hi, Pa!” Suddenly, the twins snickered and we all three fell in the mud laughing at the sight of my father and the look on his face.
Pa stepped forward, but not too close to the mud hole, and motioned with his finger for me to ‘come here’. I slowly stood and even more slowly I walked to my Pa. I really tried to stop laughing on my own, but that was quickly accomplished when my Pa firmly grabbed me by the ear and dragged me toward the creek. I heard the twins hollering as Mr. Wilson no doubt had a similar hold on them. When we got to the creek, Pa picked me up and threw me in. The twins soon joined me.
I looked at the twins, then we started laughing and splashing each other. I turned to see Pa still holding an annoyed expression. He turned to Mr. Wilson and they shrugged. “Silence!” Mr. Wilson shouted.
We turned and looked at our annoyed Pa’s. “Now, when you get that mud washed off, we’ll give you a dry set of clothing. Then I know three boys who will be filling buckets with soap and water and cleaning the mud off the side of my house! Is that clear?”
“Yes sir,” the twins declared.
I looked at Pa and swallowed. “Yes sir.”
After we got our clothes on, I felt a firm hand land on my backside. “I can’t believe you, Mark! Thirteen years old and-“
“We didn’t plan it, it just…. happened?” I declared, hoping my Pa would understand.
Pa grabbed me by the arm and yelled at me the whole way back to the ranch house. For the next two hours the three of us worked together cleaning the mud off the house and out of the yard while our father’s watched like wardens. When we were done to their satisfaction, Mrs. Wilson announced she had a nice mid-afternoon meal ready for us. Pa and I would be leaving right after the meal.
Before we left, I thanked Mrs. Wilson for her warm hospitality and thanked Mr. Wilson for allowing me to stay. Pa made me put my Sunday jacket and tie back on for the ride home, though I never really understood why. He just told me that’s the way things were done.
The boys walked up and shook my hand, thanking me for playing with them while I stayed. Pa cleared his throat and I turned to look at him. He looked toward Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, then back at me. “Oh.” I turned back to them. “And I apologize for the trouble I caused.”
Mr. and Mrs. Wilson looked at each other. Then they burst out laughing. Pa joined in with them. I looked at the twins, then we burst out laughing. Pa put his arm around me as we cackled, then the twins each hugged one of their parents. Finally, when Pa was able to speak, he said, “You know…the older I get, the more I begin to understand that age-old saying: Boys will be boys! My mother used to say it all the time about my brothers and me. I’m learning, son, as I get older that indeed…boys WILL be boys!”
I’m not sure if they were laughing with us or at us, but after the trouble we had managed to get into, I was glad they were laughing at all! Pa and I rode home. Pa laughed a few times, but tried to sternly warn me that if I ever behaved like that again I would be nailed to the barn wall. But I saw the amusement in his face.
As I looked over at Pa, I did comment, “Guess you should be thankful I’M not a twin. Then you’d have me times two and with all the trouble I get into…”
Pa tried hard to stifle his laugh as I stopped talking mid-sentence. I decided maybe it would be better to not bring up my past transgressions.
Pa told me all about the trial – that because of his testimony, the jury had been able to convict Corey of the cold-blooded murder, and Corey would indeed hang within the week.
I was sure glad to be home again. I told Pa I was thankful, for the moment, that I was an only child!
*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 Journey Back
around The McCain Ranch