Miss Lillian Halstead…Yes, I remember her. I remember her smell. Pa said the perfume she wore was called “Lilies of the Valley.” I also remember about how she was labeled as something horrible…something that I could never think of her. You see -Well, let me just start at the beginning.
I have to start one Monday morning. Another week of school was upon me, and as usual I really didn’t want to go to school. Pa had bacon and eggs all fixed when I finally made my way out of the bedroom. Pa turned from the stove and gave me that look….You know the one. The look that said that I better hustle or I would be very, very sorry. Now that was a look that I didn’t cross too often. But, every once in a while Pa had to remind me exactly what that look meant when I didn’t heed to it and was punished!
Pa pointed his finger at the table then. His voice was irate because he had called me to come out and eat three times. That was two times too many, according to my Pa. I sat down as he began his age-old words. “You know that you should be out mounting your horse right now, boy?” Pa walked over to the table and put one of his feet on the chair. He then leaned down to where he was very close to my face. I quickly stuffed a forkful of eggs in my mouth and washed it down with a long drink of milk. “I give you exactly five minutes to get yourself seated on the saddle.”
“Yes sir,” I stated before stuffing another forkful of eggs in my mouth.
Pa looked around the room. “Got all your books gathered up?”
“Um…” I swallowed what was in my mouth. “No sir.”
Pa placed hands on his hips. To the best of my knowledge, I only had about two minutes to go before a harsh punishment was handed out. I popped the last bite of eggs in my mouth and jumped up from the table to grab my books. In doing so, I tipped over the glass of milk. Quickly, I looked at Pa as he grabbed a towel to wipe up my mess. He shook his head at me disapprovingly.
I ran to the bedroom and found all my books. I sighed a sigh of relief as I fastened them all up and started to run out the door. Pa followed me to the door and watched me quickly jump onto Blueboy and race off across the range. “Bye Pa!” I called as I rode away.
I got to the school just moments after the bell rang. I quickly jumped off Blueboy, tied him up, and ran up the steps. I made so much noise that all the kids in the school turned around to stare at me. Miss Adams was taking roll. “Mark McCain,” she was saying as she looked up from her roll book.
“Here,” I called as I hurried to my seat and began unfastening the strap that held my books. I felt her staring at me but didn’t look up. She told me to stay in at recess.
I was pretty hungry by lunchtime. The breakfast on my plate wasn’t much, and I hadn’t any time to ask for more food. As Miss Adams dismissed us for lunch, I looked around my desk and suddenly groaned. “What’s wrong?” Freddie and Skinny asked as they stood beside my desk waiting for me to go out and have lunch with them.
“Oh, Pa gave me five minutes to get out the door and start for school as I sat down for breakfast this morning. I got so busy trying to avoid punishment that I forgot my lunch!” I declared.
I decided to walk into town and get something at the café. Though they didn’t generally allow charges of a meal, I’ve had to do so on certain occasions. Pa always griped at me about it, but I just stood and took it. But as I walked into town, I saw Pa’s horse, Razor. Pa was coming out of the hotel. I hurried up to him. “I didn’t know you were coming into town today!” I declared.
“Oh, Eddie wanted me to talk to him,” Pa went over to Razor and started to mount him. “Why aren’t you at school eating your lunch?”
I hung my head. “Oh, well I…I sort of-“ I started.
“You forgot it on the kitchen counter this morning,” Pa stated. “So you were planning on charging the café for your mistake again?”
“I’ll pay you back, Pa! Honest!” My stomach suddenly let out a terrible growl.
I guess Pa heard it because he suddenly smiled. He put his arm around me and led me into the hotel. “I thought you were on your way home!” Eddie declared as he looked up from his books at the front desk.
“Seems that Mark here forgot his lunch. So I’m having lunch with my son before he goes back to school.” Eddie waved at me and smiled. I went into the restaurant and sat down. “Two beef stews and no dessert. Milk for the boy.” Pa ordered this before we even sat down.
I removed my hat and sat down at the table with a grin. “Gee, I should forget my lunch more often! Having lunch with my Pa!”
Pa gave me that look again. I knew what was coming next. “Well, I’d say that about a week’s washing dishes by yourself and doing Saturday’s laundry will serve as a reminder why you shouldn’t forget your lunch.” I nodded, figuring I would have to earn this meal.
As we waited for our stew to be dipped I saw a strange lady sitting alone at a table. I stared at her, mesmerized at how different she seemed from the other women in North Fork. Pa caught me staring and turned to see what I was looking at. “Mark!” Pa suddenly stated.
I turned my eyes toward Pa. “Don’t stare!” he ordered.
“I-I’m sorry, Pa. It’s just that…” My voice drifted off.
“Her names. Lil Halstead. She’s Eddie’s daughter.” Pa raised an eyebrow when he said this.
“Eddie’s daughter. Pa, I-“ I started.
Pa held up a hand. “Never mind, son.” He picked up his napkin and placed it in his lap. “Stew’s here. Eat up so you won’t be late getting back!”
I asked Pa if we could invite her to sit with us. Pa shook his head. He had a strange look on his face, as if she would poison him if she sat down at our table. “She’s coming to our house for supper tomorrow night.”
That announcement got my attention. A big smile spread across my face. “Well now, that’s all right!” I stated.
Pa pointed to my stew and I quickly finished eating it. We stood up and walked out together. I was sorry I couldn’t have dessert, but I should have considered myself lucky for being allowed to eat in the restaurant at all!
When I got home from school that day, I immediately started on my chores in order to try to get back into Pa’s good graces. Later, after supper, I asked Pa about Miss Halstead – why hadn’t we ever heard about her. Pa had gently sat me down beside him, put an arm around my shoulders and said, “Sometimes things don’t always work out the way we plan them to.” I had heard him say that before, but I wasn’t sure what it meant in this instance. “Sometimes when two people get married, they come to a brick wall they can’t get around. Their marriage…well, they are no longer happy and they seek different things. They divorce.”
“Divorce,” I said the word. By this point in my life, I had heard that word, but it seemed like something from the Bible – not something that happened now days. “Who’s fault is it?”
Pa shook his head. “That’s none of our concern, son. But I will say that from what I’ve seen, usually both parties are a fault a bit. This is just something that happens. It’s rare, but it happens.” After a pat on the back, he sent me to bed.
I rode into the schoolyard the next morning, climbed off my horse, and walked over to the group that was huddled together. I saw the snippy Peggy sashaying around. She was swinging her bonnet and had a silly looking smile on her face. The children were laughing. I started to laugh too until I heard what she said. “Look at me! I’m Lillian Halstead, the town hussy! Aren’t I just beautiful?”
I didn’t know the word, but it sounded like one of those things that would get my mouth washed out with soap. I definitely didn’t want that! I knew that if I told the teacher, she’d get her mouth washed out with soap too. “You better stop saying that, you snippy ole Peggy Pig!” I suddenly said, angry that she would say such a thing.
But then Carrie and Amelia both began doing the same thing. “We’re dance hall hussies!” They started laughing and giggling.
“Stop that! Stop that right now!” I yelled at them as I stepped forward.
Peggy stopped and batted her eyes at me. She sure looked dumb doing that. “What’s it to you, Mark McCain?”
“Miss Halstead is Eddie Halstead’s daughter!” I stated. “She’ll be a guest in our home tonight, and I won’t have you saying such things.”
Peggy suddenly stopped her sashaying and walked up to me. She folded her arms in front of her and said, “Do you even know what a hussy is?” Then she laughed at me. I sure felt like punching her in the nose! But I knew better then to hit a girl – even if it was Peggy! She was right, though. I had no idea what that was.
They did the same thing at recess that morning. But Miss Adams came out and caught them and sent them all inside for the remainder of the recess. I was really hoping she had used some soap to clean their mouths, though, because from the look on her face, the word they used wasn’t a nice one after all! And I hoped it was that lye soap. That’s what my pa used on my mouth once. In fact, if he had been here earlier when I called Peggy a pig, I probably would have gotten it again…
After school, I rode home through town. I saw Miss Halstead standing out on the sidewalk. She sure didn’t look happy. I stopped in front of her and smiled but she just turned away. I shook my head and rode for home. The second I got home, Pa told me to sit down and get my homework done so I could help get things ready. “Pa, maybe I should just skip my homework tonight. You could always send a note with me to school and-“ But I suddenly stopped when I saw Pa’s eyes narrow and his finger point towards the house. What could I say? “Yes sir,” I groaned.
Pa was in the kitchen cooking the meat. The scent of the venison filled the room. I closed my books and stood up, closing my eyes at the smell. Pa chuckled at my expression, knowing that venison was one of my favorite meats. I walked over to the kitchen and found the corn boiling on the stove, as well as a big pot of green beans. Pa went outside to get something. I took a look at the apple pie cooling on the rack and grinned. There was a bit of pie juice sticking up in the middle, so I poked my hand down to put a bit on my finger. “Mark!” I suddenly heard. I shot my hand back.
“How do you do that?” I groaned, sorry I had missed the opportunity to get a sampling.
Pa came up to me and grabbed the offending finger that was about to touch his pie. “It’s a parent’s secret,” Pa answered with a small swat on my backside. “Now, put your books in your bedroom and start getting yourself washed up.”
“Washed up? But I-“ I stopped then, not wanting to push pa. “I mean…Yes sir.” Then I hurried to do his bidding.
They arrived as I was putting stuff on the table. Pa’s eyes grew wide when he first saw her. He looked toward me and back at her, starting to say something. But then he cleared his throat and introduced me to Miss Halstead and I nodded my head at her with a smile. She was pretty, but she was dressed sort of funny – almost like she needed more clothes on or something.
Pa nudged me as he continued smiling at our guests. He had shaken both of their hands when they arrived. “Oh,” I suddenly stated as I stuck out my hand. “Pleasure, ma’am.”
Then we sat down to eat. The talk was light as Miss Halstead talked about where she had lived before coming here. I asked her what she did and she said she was a dancer. But then Pa cleared his throat as he put a fist to his mouth and looked at me. Miss Halstead immediately changed the subject and asked me if I liked school.
I looked at Pa and saw him raise an eyebrow at me. I smiled. “Not particularly, but I guess there’s worse things I could be doing with my days,” I answered. Pa rolled his eyes and chuckled at me. “But my grades are descent…most of the time. And when they ain’t, Pa makes sure they get descent really fast.”
Everyone laughed at that. “Now, don’t let the boy fool you, Lil. Lucas is a wonderful father, and he treats Mark quite fairly from what I see.”
“He’s a good boy,” Pa smiled at me proudly.
“Yeah. Except I do have to do some extra chores this weekend for being a not-so-good boy.” I realized from the look on Pa’s face that changing the subject was probably a very good idea. “What’s it like living in a big city?”
For the most part after that, I kept pretty quiet as the adults began chatting. We had dessert and Miss Halstead began asking me more questions about my Pa, things he did and what it was like living with him. I was happy to have her attention. I suddenly asked Pa if we could pop some corn and he nodded. So as we sat by the fire waiting for the corn to pop, Miss Halstead and I had pleasant conversation. “Is this the way it is here every night? Or is this special because we’re here?”
“What?” I asked.
“Oh, sitting down at the table with a delicious meal, have dessert and pleasant conversation, then sit around the fire talking.”
I shrugged. “It’s usually this way every night. We don’t eat venison every night, but Pa makes sure we have a good, hearty meal – at least at supper.”
“He can cook well!” She exclaimed. I nodded proudly. My Pa was a very good cook. “And he even knows how to make apple pie.”
I smiled. Then I began shaking the popper a bit. I told her that Pa said keeping the corn moist makes for a better pop. Miss Halstead commented on how much my father seemed to know. I just shrugged and stated that Pa had lived quite a long time, so he had to know a lot! “Getting kind of old, is he? Probably be a while, though, before he finally falls apart!”
“Pa’s pretty stout!” I declared proudly. Then something happened and I started to reach out and steady the popper without thinking. Suddenly, the hot kernels fell on my hand and I cried out in pain. Pa jumped up and ran over to me to see my hand. He rubbed some butter on it in that loving way he always did. It hurt, but I tried not to let it show in front of company.
Mr. Halstead teased that this was a heck of a way of getting out of doing dishes. Pa gave me that look – you know, the one that told me I should answer the question correctly. “It won’t stop him from drying dishes, will it son?”
“I guess not.” That was the only thing I could answer at that point, with Pa looking at me the way he was. Then for good measure, I stated, “I can wash them too.”
“Good boy,” Pa stated. I knew that was the answer he was looking for.
Mr. Halstead seemed quiet as we washed the dishes. He suddenly made a comment that it was nice of me to volunteer washing the dishes even though I could have gotten out of it. I shook my head. “I’m on dishwashing duty every night for the next week.” Mr. Halstead grinned and looked at me. “I have to pay Pa off for that lunch meal I hat at the restaurant the other day. You see, I’m usually good, but leaving for school isn’t one of my best moments and I was in such a hurry that I forgot my lunch.”
“Oh,” Eddie smiled.
“I bet your daughter did similar things to you when she was little.” Mr. Halstead stopped rubbing the dish and just looked at me. “Oh, I’m awful sorry!”
He shook his head and waved a hand at me. Then he went back to drying.
I didn’t mind them staying all evening. The later they stayed, the longer I got to stay up. But I was soon on the porch watching them leave. Watching Miss Halstead climb up beside her father brought what happened earlier back to my mind. I had really debated on rather to ask Pa the question or not. I sure didn’t want my mouth washed out. But Pa always told me not to be afraid to ask him anything – that he’d rather I ask him the uncomfortable questions then someone else so that he knew I was getting the right answers.
So, here it goes! “Pa, what’s a hussy?”
From the shocked look on Pa’s face, I knew I had figured right about that word. After this conversation, my mouth would be washed out with soap if it ever came out of mouth again. Pa immediately demanded to know where I had heard that word at. I told him a few details about what happened at school that day.
Then he told me what that word meant. “Well Mark, it means a worthless woman.”
“You mean shiftless and no account?” I had asked Pa about that once when he had read it out of the Bible. It had been another one of those conversations I could tell Pa was uncomfortable with. And after he explained it to me, I was none to happy to have any woman called something like that. Pa had assured me that such women existed. But tonight, I knew I could never see such a nice lady as Miss Halstead that way. I knew I would tell those girls off tomorrow.
But then Pa explained to me that those girls had repeated what they had heard. I was still very upset, and Pa suddenly closed the book he was planning on reading and called me to his side. “Name calling’s a handy thing for some, Mark. They smack a label on somebody or some thing and that’s it as far as their concerned. It’s kinda a special way of hating because they don’t…take the trouble to understand.”
“Well, you have to put a label on some things like…say like a pickle jar,” I stated. Pa said that before I labeled anything though, I should be sure that it really is true. I understood him and knew with absolute certainty that those girls needed to stop their yapping.
Then Pa told me to go to bed. I was awful disappointed. I didn’t feel tired at all, and Pa never even looked at the clock to see if it was indeed time to go to bed. I mentioned that once, and Pa told me that he had a clock in his head that told him it was my bed time. So I stood up and started for the room. Suddenly, I saw Miss Halstead’s handbag. Pa stated that she’d come back to get it as he went back to reading his book. I thought we could probably catch up with her pretty quickly. “Nevermind that. You get to bed!” Pa demanded as he lightly tapped his foot on my backside. That was a warning, but I hadn’t gotten the look yet, so I’d be able to stall just a little longer.
So, I sat down as I thought about that lady. “You know she dresses kinda funny, but boy does she smell nice!” Suddenly, I heard Pa say my name in that way that told me the next words out of his mouth would be very unpleasant for me. And the look on his face assured me that if I didn’t go to bed immediately, he’d take different actions. I said goodnight and headed for the bedroom. But I couldn’t resist turning around and smiling, knowing I had pushed him to the limit and no further!
I got my nightshirt on and laid in bed, trying to get to sleep. I did go to sleep, but suddenly woke up when I heard yelling outside. I had crossed Pa enough to know I better not open that door to see what was going on, so I ran to the window and looked out. I saw Miss Halstead, her father, and two strange men standing there. I couldn’t make out what they were arguing about, but I saw her handbag suddenly thrown in the dirt and then Mr. Halstead and his daughter fall down in the dirt as Pa fired a shot, shooting one of the men.
I watched as Pa readied a buckboard and put the man who had been shot in the back. I couldn’t really tell if he was alive or dead from where I was looking. Then I saw him drag the man with the tied hands over to the wagon and force him into the back with the shot man. He said something to Mr. Halstead and his daughter and they nodded. I watched them for a minute. Mr. Halstead suddenly put his arms around her and hugged her. They were hugging like it was the first time. The whole thing was quite moving!
It was kind of sad watching. She was crying softly and shaking her head. I could see her mouth moving. It looked like she was saying, “I’m sorry.”
“Mark Warren McCain!” I suddenly heard. Now, anytime Pa used all the words in my name, I knew I was in trouble. Pa came into the room and started over to me. “Mark-“ he said in that irritated voice of his.
“Pa, I heard shouting! I just…” I stopped and crawled back into my bed. “Goodnight, Pa. I hope you get back from town before it’s too late.”
Pa stood over me with that “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with you, boy” look on his face. But then I closed my eyes and acted like I was going to sleep. He never said anything. I opened one eye to see what he was doing and he was smiling down at me and shaking his head. I opened my eyes and smiled at him in the darkness.
“You best go to sleep, young man,” Pa shook a finger at me. Then he pushed my hair back off my forehead and softly touched my cheek.
I heard him leave soon after as I drifted back off to sleep.
The next morning, Pa had to practically pull me out of the bed again. I was pretty tired! Pa must have been tired to, because as I sat down at the table, a bowl of mush was sat before me. I wrinkled up my nose and looked up at him, but quickly picked up my spoon and began eating the tasteless concoction that should have never been introduced as a breakfast item.
Pa sat down beside me as I ate. “Pa, what happened last night?”
Pa sighed. “Well son, Miss Halstead was mixed up with a member of their gang. They robbed banks. One of the gang members was killed and gave her the money. She was keeping the bank’s stolen money in her handbag.”
“So, she was gonna keep it for herself?” I asked.
Pa shrugged his shoulders. “Those men were the other members in the gang. I suspect they killed the third member when he didn’t want to do things the way Blanch and Albie wanted him to. So now Blanch is in jail and will be tried for robbery and possibly murder.
“What about Miss Halstead?” I suddenly asked. Pa just looked at me and shrugged.
“Son, I didn’t stay around for all the details. I was ready to get home.” Then Pa took my empty bowl from the table. “And you best get yourself to school.”
I nodded as I picked my books up from the table and smiled at Pa. “I’m a lot of trouble sometimes, ain’t I Pa?” I asked as I turned from the doorway.
“Yes!” Pa declared. Then he walked up to me and tosseled my hair. He looked down and smiled at me. “But I think I’ll keep you around. You’re a good ranch hand!”
“Oh pa!” I shook my head at him. Pa gave me another firm pat on the backside and I hurried out the door. “Bye, Pa!” I said before I started Blue Boy off to a slow trot.
Pa leaned against the post on the porch and waved at me. “Have a good day at school son.” Then as I started trotting off, he shouted, “And don’t be late for school!”
I laughed as I lifted my hand for a backward wave. Then I gave Blue Boy a firm kick in the side and he took off across the range.
*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
around The McCain Ranch