You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
written by Michelle Palmer
Eight Hours to Die — Episode 6
Pa got me registered in school the first day it reopened. It was hard for him to get me up and around that Monday morning. I tried to find excuses not to go, but he finally gave me a look I didn’t much care for, so I hurried and got ready to go. We rode into town together and he got me registered into school.
Miss Adams gave me a friendly smile and welcomed me. I went to sit down beside a boy named Freddie, and we immediately started talking. Before Pa even got out of the room, Miss Adams said, “Mark, we do not talk during class. Talking is reserved with permission and during recess.”
I turned and looked at Pa. He raised his eyebrow at me. Boy, I sure was starting off on the right foot all right! As the day progressed, Miss Adams did some special tests with me to see how much I knew. “Well,” she said sweetly. “You don’t have any catching up to do, young man.”
“Yes ma’am,” I stated. “Pa made me keep up with my studies.”
“Well then, I’d say you have a pretty wonderful Pa!” Miss Adams declared. “You will be working on learning your multiplication tables.”
I groaned. Math wasn’t my favorite subject. Miss Adams raised her eyebrows at me and I swallowed. “I mean, yes ma’am.”
When I rode into the yard that afternoon, Pa came up and lifted me from my horse. “How was school?”
“I’m not sure, Pa!” I declared. Pa gave me a questionable look. “Well, Miss Adams said I’m not behind at all on my studies so you did a really good job on keeping me up.”
“Well, I’d say that’s good, son,” Pa stated.
“Yeah, great!” I declared. “I have to memorize my mult-cate-something tables…Pa laughed at my pronunciation of this word. “Well, you know, the times stuff!”
“Well, do you have homework?”
I nodded. “On the first day too! Boy, schools gonna be as much fun here as it was in Claypool!”
Pa told me to hurry with my chores so I could get started on my homework.
That’s how my school days in North Fork began. There’s really not that much to tell about it. I had to sit in a classroom all day and learn about stuff. Then I had to sit at home in the evening and re-learn stuff! Oh, me and Freddie liked to pitch spitballs. The first time I did it, I just got a warning. The next day, I tried it again and was kept after school for a whole hour. When I got home, I got in trouble again. Pa said he didn’t rightly care for my getting into trouble and being kept after when there were chores waiting for me at home. So he added extra chores onto my Friday night that week.
A couple weeks passed. Pa was waiting for me outside the schoolhouse when I got done one day. He had already tied Blue Boy to the back of the wagon. “We got some shopping to do, son. Miss Hattie has some ankle boots in her store that I want you to try on.”
I groaned. “Why do I have to get new boots?” I asked. “These I have are comfortable enough! I don’t want no ankle boots!”
Pa sighed as we rode to the General Store. He stopped the wagon and hopped down. “Look, son. I just thought that ankle boots might be a bit more practical to wear to school is all.”
I started to argue some more. “Just try them on,” he stated. I did. “How do they feel son?”
“Good, Pa,” I answered. He told me to walk on them a little and try them out. I did. “Swell, Pa. Now can I take them off?”
He laughed. I think he got my point that I didn’t really care much for them. He went to get our supplies while I took them off. Suddenly, Mr. Denton, Hattie’s brother who left not long after this story ends, announced that Pa had a letter. “I’ll get it for you, Pa.” I stated.
I took the letter and looked at it. The first thing I noticed was the pretty writing. “Can I open it, Pa?” He said I could. I was a little curious as to what the stuff inside it meant though.
It wasn’t a letter. There was a newspaper article about a man being hanged and a saying written on a piece of paper. “Judgment is mine. For I am the true judge of all things,” it said.
I didn’t understand what it meant, but it seemed to really upset my Pa. He suddenly walked over to me and took the contents from me. “Who’s it from, Pa? What’s it mean?” I asked. His reaction startled me and I was naturally worried as to what was going on.
“Nothing, son. Nothing at all,” he answered. “Just some cruel joke. Go wait for me in the buckboard.” The expression on his face told me it wasn’t a joke, though. I could tell he was upset and wanted to know what it was all about.
“But Pa, why-“ I started.
“Go on, son,” Pa commanded in a voice that told me not to argue.
I did as he told me to do. I waited for him, but his mood was no better when he came out. He quietly got into the seat and started driving the wagon towards home. He didn’t say a word. I finally broke the silence. “You’re worried about that letter, aren’t you, Pa?” I asked.
Pa didn’t answer. “Pa, I said-“
“Mark, forget about the letter. I told you it was just a joke.” I opened my mouth to say something else, but Pa shot me a look. I quickly clamped my mouth closed and didn’t say another word until we got home.
By the next morning, pa seemed to be back to his normal self. But he still seemed nervous. He always looked over his shoulders. As I was getting ready to go to school, he heard a horse neigh and spun around toward the corral. I stared at him wondering why he was suddenly so jumpy, but I knew he didn’t want to talk about it. So I left for school.
A week passed, and his mood had gotten better. But one day when I came home from school, he once again seemed upset and bothered by something. I asked him what was wrong, but he simply told me to go get started on my chores.
The next morning I was moving slow. Pa’s mood was already a bit testy, and my not getting ready for school fast enough just agitated his mood even more. He was heating up the forge so he could do some shoeing. I had just gotten Blue Boy saddled and walked him out to stand by Pa. "If you haven't got those coals hot enough by the time I get back from school Pa, I'll show you how to do it.” I stated. I guess I was being a little smarty, but I didn’t think he was doing it right.
Pa didn’t like my being smarty either. “Well, you just show yourself the multiplication tables, huh?” he said with a bit of edginess in his voice.
I knew what that meant. I better get to school before I was sorry! “All right,” I answered. I turned to climb up on my horse, but then turned back around. I just couldn’t help myself! I really DID think I knew what I was talking about! "But if you wouldn't pack the coals so tight you'd get a better draft.”
I was sorry I said it as soon as I saw the look on Pa’s face. At that point, I decided the best thing for me to do was to climb up on my horse and get myself to school, even before he ordered me to do just that.
Remember how I said that I love pitching spitballs? Well, today was no different. Freddie started it, though! We were pitching them at a bossy girl across from us. I pitched one a bit too hard and it hit the wall. Miss Adams had seen it come from me. I lowered myself down in the bench and acted like I was studying my reader intensely, but Miss Adams told me to stay in at recess.
At recess, she told me that this was the third time since I had started school that she had to get onto me for this. “You will stay after school again today, Mark. Only instead of sitting in here, you will chop a cord of kindling for me after school.”
I groaned. Chopping wasn’t one of my strong points. After school, I asked Freddie to ride by the ranch and tell Pa I would be late. I knew I’d get in more trouble when I got home that evening, but there was really nothing I could do about it. Pa sure would have some words for me, that much I knew!
I chopped for quite awhile. Miss Adams assured me that she would stick around until I was done. She could grade some papers at her desk while I worked. It didn’t take long for me to get tired.
While I was chopping, an old man rode up to the school. “I’ve come for Luke McCain’s boy,” he stated. He went on to say that my Pa had been hurt.
Fear gripped at me. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. It must have been really serious if a complete stranger was sent to fetch me. Miss Adams dismissed me and I untied my horse. That’s when he told us that Pa had taken a fall from his wagon and had a badly broken ankle. I knew I needed to get home so I could take care of him, but I was suddenly very relieved he wasn’t dying. So I stopped by my horse and closed my eyes.
The old man wanted to know what I was doing. I told him I was just thanking God that it wasn’t any worse. He was happy to hear I was God-fearing. I figured everyone was!
I wanted to hurry and get home so I would know for sure that Pa was okay. I couldn’t take the word of a stranger, or even a friend. I had to see it for myself. And I wanted to be the one to care for him until he was back on his feet. As we traveled down the road though, the old man’s horse suddenly stumbled and he fell off hard. I ran back to make sure he was okay. He wasn’t. I knelt down beside him. I asked him how he felt and he said his head hurt. He must have been hit pretty hard, because he called me Ephraim and called me his Pa.
I must admit that I was a bit fearful at this point, because his words weren’t making since. He had me by the shoulders and was shaking me as he spoke. “I raised you right, boy. In the powers of righteousness! If I was strict and hard, it was for your own good, Ephraim! You understand that, boy, don’t you? You understand that?”
I was clueless as to what he was saying, but I simply agreed with him. “I knew you would boy. They were lying when they said you did evil to deny me!”
I knew he was confused, so I simply agreed with everything he said. He ever begged me to call him Pa. I didn’t know what else to do. I was afraid of him, especially since he had a hold of me, so I obeyed him and called him Pa.
Then his head started hurting and he passed out. I had to get him to a shade where he would be out of the hot sun. I dragged him over to a tree with all my might. It was a hard task, but I knew it was something that had to be done. I propped him up against the tree, and could tell he was fading fast. I looked around desperately, looking for something – anything that might help him. Then I saw water running from a rock wall. I ran over and wet my kerchief. Then I wiped the old man’s forehead with it.
I was happy to see that this helped him. He woke up and seemed to be in his right mind again. He knew who I was. “You could have gone on, but you stayed here caring for me,” he stated, surprised.
I didn’t know why that surprised him so much. Wouldn’t anybody do that? I told him he was out of his head and that he thought I was someone else. When I told him I had called him pa at his request, he got a prideful look in his eye, and I knew then that I had done the right thing. Suddenly, he felt a strong need for water. I hurried over to the rock wall. Taking off my hat, I started filling it up with water. But suddenly, I heard a gunshot and fell to the ground.
When everything was quiet, I lifted my head and looked. There had been a rattlesnake. Suddenly, my Pa was there. He jumped from his horse and angrily grabbed the old man around the neck. I was guessing he though the old man had shot me. I ran to him as I held the rattler by the tail.
Pa turned and I saw the relief shining in his eyes. He came to hug me as tears swelled up in his eyes. He hugged me tight, as if he had feared he’d never see me again. I hugged him back, not understanding any of this. Suddenly, a realization hit me. I leaned back and stared at Pa. “He said your ankle was broke!” I suddenly stated. I put my hat on and looked at the old man. “You said my Pa’s uncle was broke!”
The judge nodded. “I did, son,” he answered.
“I don’t understand, Pa.” Then I knew there was more going on. There was something between my Pa and the judge
“Suddenly, I heard Pa state, “I don’t know rather to kill you or thank you!” His voice was crying with relief and confusion.
I stared at Pa as he said this. Suddenly I knew I had to calm him. He was too upset. I laid a gentle hand on his face. This made him look at me. I saw his eyes soften a bit. “You can help him, Pa!” I stated. I could tell the old man was in dire need of a doctor, and I needed to shake Pa back to reality. “I don’t understand what’s going on here, Pa. This man fell off his horse. He’s hurt bad!”
“Help him?” The way he said it, it sounded like that was a hard request. I slid from his arms. Pa kept one arm around me. I knew he needed to keep that contact with me, so I grabbed his hand and led him over to the old man.
Pa’s senses were finally returning to him. The old man clinched his forehead as another pain hit him. I looked desperately at Pa. I really liked this old man and didn’t want him to die. “Just relax, judge. I’ll help you,” I heard Pa say.
Still, I was confused trying to figure out who he was. Now at least I knew he was a judge. I brought Pa some water as he asked me to. I watched as the judge took a long drink of water, then closed his eyes and laid back against the tree. Suddenly, Pa commanded me to ride into town and get the doctor.
I rode Blue Boy as fast as I could. Dr. Burge had just finished up with another patient and was in his office. He told me to go get a wagon and team from the livery so we could bring the judge back to town. I hurried as fast as I could so we could get to him help before it was too late.
We raced back to the place where Pa and the judge were. I jumped from the wagon before the doc had completely stopped it. I stopped mid-way as I silently watched my Pa take off his hat and hold it to his chest. My heart sank. I knew it was too late. Dr. Burge and I took our hats off. Then we walked forward to honor the man’s passing.
I was confused and hurt. The judge had come to the school and got me by lying about pa. But he was so nice, and in the end he died. None of it made sense to me, but I knew my Pa understood what was going on. I turned and watched Pa lay the judge’s body in the back of the wagon. He covered it up with a cloth. I stood in silence as Dr. Burge drove the wagon back towards town. Pa came to stand beside me. He put an arm around me. “I don’t understand what’s happening here, Pa!” I stated.
Pa bent down and picked me up. “The judge came here to kill us, son,” Pa stated.
My eyes suddenly widened and I let out a surprised gasp. “You remember that letter I got that day in Hattie’s store?” I nodded, not being able to speak. “It was from the father of that boy that did the shooting in Claypool before we left.”
I lowered my head. Being forced to remember that tragic day Mr. Michaels was shot and killed. Pa had hunted down the boy later. I tried to stay strong while thinking about it, but I stated shaking. Pa felt me and wrapped his arms around me tighter.
“Mark, look at me,” I heard Pa say. I raised my head so I was once again looking into his eyes. His eyes were warm. He had a smile on his face. “It’s all over now, son. The boy was hanged not long ago, and the judge came after me for vengeance. He decided to punish me by…well, by coming after you.”
I knew Pa was leaving out a lot of details, but I knew enough. “He was filled with hate – not for us, but for himself. You see son, he didn’t show his son that he loved him. He ruled his son like a…well, like we train a horse. He tried to control him with words on everything he wanted his son to do. When his son grew up, he resented him for it. Now, I may be stern with you…and strict at times, but I try to be fare and show you I love you.”
I tried to let all this sink in, but it was hard to imagine someone who seemed so nice to be so evil. . I sighed as I realized I didn’t understand. “So he was coming to…kill me?” I suddenly asked. I hadn’t realized that was the truth until I spoke those words out loud. I turned and looked at the spot he had died as the realization was planted deeper into my mind. I felt goose bumps creep up my body as I realized that going with him could have caused my death.
Pa only nodded as he tried to explain the truth to me. “In the end he knew he was wrong, son. In the end, he knew that he couldn’t control his son like you can control a horse. You are different from me in some ways, and I have to allow for that. Judge Zephaniah realized that in the end. He said he knew you were a good boy and I was a good father.”
Pa sat me back on the ground as we started for his horse. I looked around, trying to let understanding of the situation take over, but it didn’t – not really. How could I ever understand something so horrible?
As I got older, it got easier for me to understand, and I was able to see the situation more through my father’s eyes. But I don’t think a man could ever understand what exactly goes through a man’s head that is filled with vengeance.
Pa and I walked side-and-side for a few moments. Then Pa decided to break the awkward silence. I’m guessing he didn’t want me thinking on it anymore. “Oh by the way, what’s this about you pitching spit balls today, son?”
I looked up and saw Pa looking down at me with a big grin on his face. I took a safe bit that this was one time I would get away with it. I shrugged casually. Then I grinned back at him. “Sometimes it pays to be mischievous, don’t it, pa?” Somehow I knew it was my being at the school that saved me from some sort of death at the ranch.
Suddenly, Pa stopped walking. He looked down at me with raised eyebrows. But I could see through that look. I could see that he was so relieved to have me alive he couldn’t even muster up a single word of reprimand. Then he shook his head. We both started laughing in relief and pure joy of being together.
He shook his head at me as he mounted Razor then he bent down and picked me up. He sat me in front of him on Razor. “Let’s go get your horse, mischievous one!”
Being there in the saddle with my Pa was one of my favorite places to be. There was something special to me about riding with my Pa, leaning against him and feeling his heart beating. It must have affected him the same way, because his heart beat harder and faster when I was up there with him. I knew that up there with his protective arms around me, there was nothing that could separate us. Ever!
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Duel of Honor
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch