She had jet-black hair that hung down her back in a single braid. Her rosy cheeks smiled as she laid her head against the neck of the cream colored stallion. I hid behind the bush as I just stared at the beauty before my eyes – the stallion. Never had I seen a more beautiful sight! “It’s okay, Buttermilk,” the woman laughed as she kissed him. I noticed then why she was acting so loving toward him. Buttermilk was uneasy.
I looked up at the sky from my hiding place. A dark cloud had suddenly hidden the sun. Blue Boy whinnied and I reached out my hand to pat his neck. I turned back and watched the woman and stallion as they stood by the lake. The stallion began crying as if he was frightened. “It’s okay, boy,” I heard the woman say again. “It’s okay!” But the stallion paid her no mind. He began rearing back on his hind legs. Something had him spooked!
At the age of eleven, I knew enough to know that the horse was frightened because he felt his life was in danger. I didn’t understand why though. I had been watching the woman with the stallion ever since they rode up. I could tell they loved each other. But even now, I could tell that something was wrong – terribly wrong!
I started out of my hiding place when suddenly, I heard a gunshot. The woman fell to the ground. She didn’t move. I gasped as I looked around. Where had it come from? It didn’t take long for me to get my answer. From my hiding place, I saw a man – not too tall, yet not too short – walk out from some trees. He held a six-gun in his hand. The barrel was still smoking. Slowly, he walked up to the woman and bent over her. He mumbled something I couldn’t make out. Finally, he stood and said, “Sorry, miss, but this horse will bring a fine sum of money where I’m goin’! I need that money to get back to California.”
Then the man turned. Blue Boy had sneezed. I gasped and threw a hand to my mouth. I closed my eyes and prayed he hadn’t seen me. Then I opened them. He was staring right in my direction. He had a long red mustache that hung well below his lips. His hair was bright red and set way back on his head as if he was losing his hair. But the thing I noticed most was a strange-looking scar that sat low on his cheek. It was an “H” with a slash through it. It almost looked like a brand…
The man slowly turned and grabbed Buttermilk’s reins. He reared back again. The man just snapped him really hard with a whip. The horse calmed and he climbed on him. I watched as he rode like lightening down the road.
I waited for a few moments as the hoof beats faded in the distance. I kept hearing the far-distant sound of the beating hoofs and wondered if it would ever stop. Then I felt the beats and realized it was my pounding heart. I was shaking from head to toe as I stepped out onto the road. I cocked my head to one side and squinted, trying to get a better look at the woman laying on the ground. “Ma’am?” I called. But I got no answer.
I walked closer to her. “Uh…Ma’am?” But she didn’t move. I closed my eyes, remembering just a few months back when I happened on a shallow grave and saw a dead body lying there. It made me sick to my stomach just thinking on it. I took another step closer. “Ma’am?” She still didn’t move. I balled my fists up to my side and just stood there in the middle of the road for a long time. I stared at where she lay.
Suddenly, I heard a wagon approaching. I gasped and ran back to my hiding place, Blue Boy right behind me. I watched as Mr. Merar stopped his wagon and stepped down. He looked down at the motionless body laying by the watering hole. Then he looked around. I put a hand to my mouth to keep a gasp from escaping when I saw him shake his head and sigh. I knew she was dead.
He picked her up and put her in the back of the wagon. Then he drove off.
Tears filled my eyes as I stood behind the tree. I could’ve helped! I should have gone right away. I tapped my head against the back of the tree as I cried for the loss of life I had witnessed. Then I got on Blue Boy and slowly rode into town.
But I didn’t go to school. I hitched Blue Boy up behind the church and stepped out onto the street. I could see Mr. Merar’s wagon in front of Micah’s office. Micah and several other men were standing by the wagon talking. I slowly made my way down the street. “She was dead when she hit the ground,” Micah declared in assurance. “No one could have survived something like that.”
“It wasn’t long, Micah. Whoever shot her can’t be far away.” I heard one man in the crowd say that. I wasn’t sure who.
I stood directly behind Micah, staring at the woman that had been laughing only moments before. She now laid there – dead. I hung my head in shame, wishing I hadn’t hidden from her. Maybe if I had greeted her…maybe she’d still be alive. Suddenly, Micah turned and saw me. “Mark, what are you doing here?” I felt Micah lay his hand on my shoulder as I continued staring at the dead woman. Someone suddenly put a sheet over her body so I couldn’t stare anymore. “You shouldn’t be here, son.”
I looked up at Micah. I just stared into his eyes but said nothing. I watched this woman get murdered! I wanted to say it, but my throat was closed up. Micah saw the fear on my face. He bent down in front of me and grabbed my shoulders. “Mark? Mark?” I didn’t say anything but began gasping and trembling. Micah turned. “Abe, go get Lucas!” He turned back to me and grabbed my shoulder to lead me inside.
Micah spent several moments trying to get me to speak, but I couldn’t. I closed my eyes. If I closed my eyes, I could still see that woman hugging her horse she called Buttermilk. If I closed my eyes, she was still laughing as she dismounted her horse and bent down by the water to get a drink. If I closed my eyes, she was giving Buttermilk a kiss. If I closed my eyes…
“Micah, Abe told me that-“ I suddenly heard Pa’s voice. My head swung around. Pa froze in midsentence and stared at me. “Mark?” He came and bent down in front of me. “Son, what is it?”
I guess he could see the fear all over my face…or whatever I was feeling. Really, I wasn’t sure what I was feeling…I looked at Pa and said nothing. I just shook my head. Pa laid a hand on my cheek. “Son?” The way he said it made me burst into tears. I suddenly threw my arms around his neck and cried bitterly. Pa wrapped his arms around me and picked me up. He cradled me in his arms as he sat down in the chair. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I cried over and over.
Pa allowed me to cry for a while. Then he pulled me away from him and lifted my face to look into my eyes. “Mark, what happened? Is it something at school?” I shook my head. “Before you got to school?” I nodded. Then I threw my head into his chest and cried some more.
Pa lifted his head to Micah. “Did something happen?” Micah didn’t say anything. I heard the angry fear in Pa’s voice then. “What is it, Micah? What happened to my boy?”
“All I know is that Abe Merar found a dead woman on the way into town. She had been shot down by the watering hole on the road from your house.”
Pa grasped my face in his hands and again lifted my head to look at him. “Son, is that it? Is that what’s wrong?” Pa’s voice held sternness, but I just nodded. I couldn’t speak. “Did you see it?” I wrapped my arms tighter around Pa’s neck and cried. If I just closed my eyes, she was still alive. With my eye closed, I didn’t watch her die in front of my eyes. She’s still there at that watering hole. “Mark? Son?”
“Lucas, if he did see it, he’s probably in shock,” Micah guessed. “I think you should take him home. I’ll come out this afternoon and we’ll see if we can get to the bottom of this.”
“Let’s go home, Mark,” Pa whispered close to my ear. Pa slowly stood up, but I kept a firm hold with my arms around his neck. “It’s okay, son. You don’t have to talk.”
I kept my eyes closed as Pa carried me out of Micah’s office. I kept my eyes closed, I didn’t want to see any red-headed strangers. I just knew he’d see right through me! Pa made his way onto the street. “Where’s your horse, son?” Pa asked.
I just looked up at him. “Be-behind the church.”
Pa nodded. “Let’s go get him.”
He started to head that way as he continued carrying me. “NO!” I cried, involuntarily.
Pa looked atme. “Son, what’s wrong?” I just continued to tremble and keep my eyes closed “Let’s go get your horse, Mark.” I heard his voice break. I could tell he was worried, but I couldn’t get that sight out of my head! Pa walked down to the church. He untied my horse and sat me on him, I chanced to open my eyes. When he turned to hand me the reins, he saw the hesitation in my eyes. “Alright, I’ll stay right beside you.
I was left to my thoughts as we rode home. I could still see the smile on that woman’s face as she stopped by the watering hole. The stallion had reared back on his hind legs, but it wasn’t out of fear or mischief. She had trained him to do that and it was beautiful seeing those two together! I was so mesmerized at them that I just stood behind those bushes and watched. Maybe if I had gone up to meet her. Maybe if I had…”He’ll never survive without her,” I mumbled as I thought about that horse.
“What’s that, son?” Pa asked beside me. I turned and looked at him. I just shook my head.
I felt Pa’s eyes on me as I climbed off Blue Boy and tied him to the hitching post outside. I felt him watch me as I slowly walked into the house and sat down at the table. Pa sat down beside me. “Son?” That single word held so much emotion in it. I lifted my head and looked into his eyes. There I saw his questions, but I couldn’t answer them. Not now…Pa sighed. “If you saw the man who did this, son, you need to tell us so we can look for him.”
I just shook my head. “I can’t,” I answered. I stood up. “Pa, I just can’t!.” Pa watched me as I walked into the bedroom and closed the door.
Suddenly, I saw her at the water again. She WAS alive! She laughed as she patted Buttermilk on the neck and planted a kiss on his face. The stallion whinnied. It was almost like…they were laughing together. Suddenly, the stallion lost his laugh as a gunshot sounded in the. But this time, not only was she dead, but so was the stallion!
“No! No! Don’t shoot them!” I shouted. The man with the red hair suddenly turned as he stood over the two bodies. “No!” I screamed. He started toward me.
“I’ll need you to get to California,” he sneered at me.
“No! Don’t hurt me!” I screamed. “No! No!”
“Mark!” I heard someone call my name.
“Leave them alone! Please…don’t kill them…”
“Mark!” Suddenly, Pa grabbed me. I opened my eyes. He was really there. I gasped as he held onto me. His eyes were full of questions and concerns. “Mark?” he whispered then.
We just sat there staring at each other for the longest times. Suddenly, my eyes filled with tears. I began talking rapidly – my words just spilled out. “I heard the shot, then she died. I just couldn’t go out Pa I just couldn’t, then that man was there, then he was gone I couldn’t go check on her I just couldn’t and now she’s-“
“Mark, stop!” Pa suddenly shouted. My words died on my mouth. Pa held me back from him. “Did you see her murdered?”
I turned my head from Pa. I felt ashamed, scared, and sad all at the same time. Pa sighed. “Mark, I-“
“I don’t know what I’m feeling, Pa!” I closed my eyes. “If I just keep my eyes closed, I see her and she’s still alive.”
I whipped my head around. “It’s not like I’ve never seen a dead person before, Pa! It’s not like I’ve never seen someone die before, Pa!”
“I know, son,” Pa said quietly.
I stood up and wiped the hot tears from my eyes. “I mean…it was me that stumbled up on that grave on my way home from school one day, remember? A-a-and I watched you shoot and kill a few men a-a-and…”
I stood there staring at Pa. I was confused…I didn’t know what to do. “Just leave me be, Pa! Just leave me be!” I cried.
“I can’t do that, Mark,” Pa said as he put a firm hand on my shoulder. “I’m your father. It’s my job to-“ I shook his hand off and ran out of the bedroom. “Mark!” I kept running out the door. I ran to the barn. “Mark, come back!”
I made my way up into the hayloft. I was so scared! I was hurt and confused and…There were so many thoughts going through my head. What if he had seen me? What if he came back later and found my tracks? What if he followed me all the way into North Fork? What if he arrived here?
Then I thought on something else. I thought on the woman. Why hadn’t I gone out and talked to her instead of hiding behind the tree spying on her? Pa always told me it wasn’t nice to spy on folks, and he would have given me a good tongue lashing if he had known. If I had gone up to her…
I shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. I had been on my way to school when I heard her singing. I was just coming down the path to get on the main road when I stopped to listen. She was singing gaily as she rode down the lane.
Oh where have you been Billy Boy Billy Boy
Oh where have you been, Charming Billy
I have been to seek a wife
She’s the apple of my eye
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother
Then she had stopped her horse at the watering hole and climbed down. I watched as she whispered to Buttermilk and petted him softly on the nose. I’d heard them as they laughed together. They were best friends.
Bang! Just like that, she was dead.
If only I had gone to meet her. If only I’d-
Suddenly, I heard a horse approaching at a fast pace. I gasped as I crawled way back in the hayloft. He had found me! Somehow…he had found me! I closed my eyes and again waited for the image of the woman and Buttermilk to come, but instead it was the face of the red-headed mustached man. It was so big and his laugh was evil! “Want to go to California?” the man sneered. “Wanta go to California?”
“Mark?” I heard Pa’s voice, but I could still hear the voice of that man who talked through his nose with a grunt in his voice. “Mark, come down here please.”
I barely heard Pa’s voice. I wanted the image of the woman to come back. She was suddenly pressed way back in my head. That man – the bad one…He was in front now. I heard footsteps on the ladder. My heart began beating as I lowered myself in the corner of the hayloft. I curled in a ball hoping he’d go away. I buried my face in my arms hoping he wouldn’t notice me.
Suddenly, someone grabbed me. “No!” I screamed. “No, leave me alone please! I didn’t see anything! I swear I-“
He started shaking me. “Mark! Mark, it’s me! It’s Pa!” I froze as I looked up into Pa’s face. He had worry on his face. I shook my head and tried to apologize, but it died in my throat.
Pa nodded. He saw the regret in my face. “Let’s go in, son.”
I felt myself being led inside. Micah was there at the table waiting. I tried to turn toward the bedroom, but Pa kept a firm hand on my shoulder. “Sit down here, son.”
I sat, but I looked down at the table as if I was studying something of the upmost importance there. “What did you see, Mark?” I barely heard the question. I remained silent. “What has you so scared?” Again, I remained silent. I couldn’t answer. I felt Pa grab my arm. He gently began shaking me. “Talk to me, son.” I heard the pleading in his voice, but I couldn’t…I just…
“Lucas!” Micah interrupted then. “Lucasboy, don’t force it.”
Pa let go of me. I heard him sigh. But I could still hear that man’s laugh deep inside me. The evil laughter filled the house. “Can you tell us anything?” Micah asked in a low voice. “You’re safe here, Mark. You can trust us.”
I looked up then. “Can I go to my room now?” I asked quietly.
“Oh, Mark…” Pa groaned quietly.
Micah nodded. “Go on, boy. Go on.”
I stood and started for my room. I turned and looked at Pa and Micah. They were staring at me. “I…” I could hear that voice still. “I’m sorry!” Then I disappeared into my bedroom. As I closed the door, I leaned against it.
“I don’t get it, Micah!” I heard Pa say suddenly. I could tell he was pacing the floor. “The boy is terrified!”
“It’s not just terrified, Lucas,” Micah declared softly. “There’s more…”
“The longer he holds out on us, the further away the killer gets!” I jumped as I heard Pa’s fist hit the wall really hard.
“I know that, Lucas.” Micah must have walked over to Pa because his voice was suddenly louder too. “But sometimes…there may be more important issues to deal with.”
“You should have seen him in the barn, Micah. He was like…He was TERRIFIED! Like…someone was trying to get him.”
I went to lay down on my bed. I drew my legs up to my chest and laid there listening to the mumblings coming from the other room. I hated putting them through this. I hated not being able to tell. I hated not understanding what was wrong.
I laid there for a long time. I heard the door open. Pa stood in the doorway, but my back was toward him. “Supper’s ready,” I heard Pa announce. “Mark, I said-“
“I’m not hungry,” I declared without turning around. I just continued staring at the wall.
“You have to eat, son.”
“I said I’m not hungry.” My voice was a little more forced this time.
I heard Pa sigh. A few moments passed. “Alright, son.” Then I heard the door close.
I sighed. If only I had talked to her – none of this would have ever happened!
It happened again that night, though this time I didn’t see the woman with jet black hair. This time, I only saw the man with the big rad mustache. He was standing over the body of the woman – the horse was right beside him, rearing back on his hind legs and screaming. My heart began racing. “I should have talked to her!” I screamed. “I should have talked to her!”
I felt Pa shaking me. When I opened my eyes, the room was completely dark. I looked down and noticed that I was in my nightshirt. Pa must have undressed me in my sleep. Why was I thinking on a silly thing like that when my life was at stake? I suddenly looked up into Pa’s face and stared at him. “Pa, I should have talked to her,” I mumbled.
“Who son?” Pa asked.
“Her!” I cried out. I jumped up and threw my hands to my face. “I should have talked to her! None of this would have happened if-“ I suddenly stopped and gasped. I stared at Pa as if I had suddenly revealed a nasty secret.
“No, no, no…” Pa rushed up to me. “Don’t stop, son. Keep talking!”
I swung my head back and forth really fast. “No! I..I can’t! He’s there…He’s there because I didn’t talk to her!”
I rushed back to my bed and threw myself down as I wept into my pillow. I felt Pa sit down and put his hand on my shoulder as I cried. “Oh Mark…Oh son…” I heard him crying. “I wish you wouldn’t hold it all inside! I wish you would talk to me, son.”
“I can’t! I just can’t!”
The next morning, I heard pa come into my room. The sunshine had awakened me, but I couldn’t bring myself to get out of the bed. “You need to get ready for school, son,” Pa said in a reserved, cheerful voice.
“I can’t,” I answered.
I heard Pa suck in his breath. I heard his footsteps as he walked over to me. “Why not?” I didn’t say anything. Pa bent over and grabbed my shoulder. He turned me toward him. “Why not Mark?”
“I just can’t!” I cried. “Please, Pa! Please don’t make me!”
I could see the worry in Pa’s eyes. It deepened with each moment. “How long is this going to go on?”
I turned back to stare at the wall. “I don’t know,” I answered.
Pa sighed. “Alright, son.” He walked to the door. “Breakfast’s in ten minutes. I want you dressed and at the table.”
“I’m not-“ I started.
“I don’t care if you are hungry or not. You’ll sit at the table and eat.” I slowly sat up in my bed and stared at Pa. “After you eat, there’s chores to do.” Pa turned and walked out.
When Pa wants something done, it’s done. I sat at that table for breakfast for a solid two hours. Pa made me eat every last bit of my eggs and bacon. He didn’t seem to understand that there was a really sick feeling down in the bottom of my stomach that didn’t agree with the food he was forcing me to put in my mouth. He didn’t understand the thoughts that were tormenting me every second I was awake! He didn’t understand-
“I’m going out to tend the stock. When you’re done, we’ll ride out and check the cattle.”
I gasped at the sound of Pa’s voice. I looked up and stared into his eyes. Pa’s stern expression lightened a bit when he saw the fear on my face. The reason I was fearful was because I had again seen that man’s face in front of me. It was almost like he was here in this very room.
Pa wrinkled his forehead and cocked his head to one side as he watched me with a strange expression on his face. I turned and looked around the room, afraid I’d see that man. “Who is he, Mark?” Pa suddenly asked.
I flipped my head back around to look at Pa. I suddenly stood and forced myself to take dishes to the sink. “I’m so tired, Pa. Can I go to my room?” I asked as I stared into the sink.
“No,” Pa answered sternly. He came to stand beside me. “You can’t run from this, son. Where ever you go, it’s right there beside you.”
I turned from him as I started pumping water in the sink. Pa shook his head as he walked to the door. He paused with his hand on the rifle. After one more look, he opened the door and left.
I was a bit fearful to be alone with my thoughts, so I rushed through the dishes. I probably didn’t get them clean to my Pa’s satisfaction, but I had to go to him. When I opened the front door, I was surprised to see Pa sitting on the porch steps staring over the land. “Sit down, Mark.”
I obeyed as I sat down beside him. Pa put an arm around my shoulders. “When I was twelve years old, I was walking in the woods. There was a boy there. He was oh…fifteen…maybe sixteen. He was checking his traps as he often did. But as I was about to go up to him, another man came out of nowhere and started talking to him. I decided to go on without stopping, seeing as how he was engaged in another conversation.”
I didn’t even look up at Pa as he spoke. I just stared up the road wondering…thinking…
Pa sighed. “The next day, I walked through the woods on my way to school. I found that boy there. He was dead – stabbed with a knife. Come to find out, that man I’d seen the day before killed him for the money he had saved from his trapping and farming. He was killed for $50, son.”
I could see Buttermilk running gaily through the range. His creamed colored mane blew as he galloped happy and free. Suddenly, he stopped and reared back on his hind legs letting out a joyful sound.
Then he diaspeared.
I could feel Pa watching me. I knew he expected that story to open me up, but I still couldn’t talk about it. I turned to him. “Ready to check the cattle?”
Pa sighed. “Sure, son.”
I stared down at my sandwich Pa had sat before me for lunch. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t force myself to pick it up and bring it to my mouth. It had been hard working with Pa all morning. It seemed everywhere I went, I almost expected that red-headed man to ride over the range. I did more looking around then helping. I saw Pa watching me all morning. Sometimes, he’d look in the direction I looked, but there would be nothing there – not anymore.
I stared at the sandwich. “I can’t, Pa. I just can’t!” I cried.
“What have you been looking at all morning, son?” Pa asked then. I shook my head. “Are you afraid of the man who killed that woman, son?” Again, I shook my head. “What then, son?” I remained silent as I stared down at my sandwich. “Mark, talk to me!” Pa suddenly ordered in a harsh voice.
I stood up. My chair fell to the floor with a loud crash. I jumped. “I can’t, Pa! Can’t you see, I can’t!”
I ran to my room and slammed the door. “Mark!” I heard, but I paid no mind.
I threw myself on the bed and began crying again. I didn’t understand why I was feeling this way. I didn’t understand why this time…it was so different…
I wasn’t in there very long before I heard a rider. I stayed on my bed, hoping and praying that he wouldn’t find me in here. I scooted to the corner of my bed and waited.
But he never came.
But I heard the door open and Pa walked in. Micah stood behind him. I looked up to see Dr. Burrage with him. “Mark?” Pa pulled a chair up and straddled it. “Did the killer have red hair and a long red mustache?”
I stared at Pa. Then I looked at Micah. I shook my head. “No! No!” The vision of him filled my head. I stood up to run. “Leave me alone!”
“Mark!” Pa grabbed me.
“Shoot him, Pa!” I screamed. “Shoot him!” I pointed at the red headed stranger as he stood in the doorway.
“He’s not here, Mark! I promise you! He’s not here!”
“Kill him! He’s there!” I hurried toward the door. I began banging my fists on the door until the hurt. “Why?” I screamed. “Why? Why? Why?”
Pa grabbed me and pinned my arms down. I was crying and screaming for him to kill the red-headed stranger. I heard voices behind me. Then I felt a stick. Then everything went dark.
I dreamed she was riding a white horse down the road as she laughed. The braid hung down her back. Pa rode right beside her as they laughed together. I clapped my hands as I held the flowers in my hand. “For you, Ma! For you!”
She jumped from her horse and hurried over to me. She laughed as He took the flowers from me and kissed me. “I love you, my little calf!” I giggled as she kissed me again. “I love you my little calf…” I love you my little calf…” The voice became quieter and quieter.
Suddenly I opened my eyes and looked around. Pa stood at the bedroom window with his arms crossed. I moaned as I stirred in my bed. I saw Pa turn around and hurry over to me. He put a hand to my head. “How are you feeling?”
“Remember that cream colored horse of Ma’s?”
Pa sat down on the side of the bed and looked down at me. “You remember that horse?”
I nodded. “What ever happened to it?”
Pa sighed. “I hated giving that horse up, son. It was just too painful. Your mother loved that horse.” Pa looked down at me. “I let him go to run free again. I coulfn’t bare the thought of anyone riding him ever again. Your Ma loved that horse. They were like…”
“Best friends,” I answered for him.
Pa nodded. “Yes.”
“He killed her for her horse, Pa,” I answered quietly.
Pa stared down at me. “What?”
“The man with the red hair and long mustache…He killed her for her horse.
“Oh.” Pa ran a hand through my hair as I sat up.
I sat up on the side of the bed. “I don’t know what…what came over me, Pa. I acted like a-“
“Doc Burrage said you were in shock, son.” Pa sighed. “I should have never pushed you. Micah warned me against it, but I thought I knew best. I’m just glad Doc Burrage was there when you needed him.”
“Mm,” Pa nodded his head as he put an arm around my shoulders. “He and Micah had a notion I’d try to push you. Micah said he knew me pretty well.” Pa looked me straight in the eye. “There’s been a rash of murders, Mark. A…man with red hair and a mustache was seen killing a 16 year old boy in Willerby a few nights ago. The boy was able to say red hair and long mustache before he died in his father’s arms.”
“Just as you said…for his horse.”
“She had a cream-colored stallion named Buttermilk. She looked just like Ma with that horse. She even had the same hair.”
Pa gave me a confused look. “Your mother had light brown hair, son. This woman had black hair.”
“No matter, Pa. She looked just like Ma.”
“Tell me everything, son.”
I stood up and went to look out the window. “It’s my fault she died.”
“No, son. It’s not your fault.”
“It is!” I swung around. “It is my fault!”
Pa held up a hand. “Just stay calm, son. Please.”
I bit my lip. “I was riding to school. I saw her. She was singing while riding her horse.” I turned as I paced and stared at Pa. “Oh Pa, she reminded me so much of Ma!” I turned back toward the window. “Only…I couldn’t’ talk to her. I don’t know why…I hid in the bushes and watched her climb from her horse and walk over to the water. You should have seen them together! They were so friendly! I just couldn’t talk to her!”
I stopped as I looked out the window. Pa walked up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Go on.”
I felt a little bit of the fear from earlier creep back inside me. “No. No, that’s enough for now, Pa.”
Pa didn’t say anything. He just kept his hands on my shoulders. “Alright, son.” He patted my shoulder. “I’ll go fix supper.”
“Pa?” Pa turned from the door. “Can I…help you?”
Pa put an arm out to me. I walked up to him and allowed his arm to fall onto my shoulder as we walked out together.
It was after supper. Pa was sitting on the porch smoking his cigar. He was more relaxed, but still very worried about me. I stood in the doorway and watched as Pa took a long puff off his cigar. As he blew it out into the darkness, it made a long line of smoke the gentle wind softly blew away. Then I heard a sigh from deep inside me. “Your still worried about me, ain’t ya, Pa?” I asked from the doorway.
Pa turned and looked up at me. “As your father, I expect I’ll always worry about you, son.”
I walked out and sat down on the step next to him. “Yeah, but you’re really worried about me right now cause…cause I’m afraid.”
“Son, you are an eleven year old boy who just witnessed a cold blooded murder. The woman was shot in the back and left for dead.”
“That’s not the whole story, Pa.” I hung my head. “I…I…Well, I disobeyed you.”
“How?” Pa asked.
“You told me to never spy on a person – that it wasn’t nice.” Pa nodded but said nothing. “If I had gone to talk to her like you taught me I-“
“Whoa there!” Pa held up his hand. “Just a minute, son. From what Micah told me, I’m very happy you did disobey me.” I studied him. Pa explained. “He wouldn’t have hesitated killing you too. He would have.”
A shiver went up my spine. “You mean he-“ I couldn’t finish. Pa nodded. “Pa, I looked right into his face. One second she was laughing with her horse and the next she was dead.”
“Did you see him kill her, Mark?”
I closed my eyes as I remembered back. Her laughing, the horse getting nervous, her kissing the horse…Then the shot and her falling with a grunt. Then I froze…He came out with the smoking gun and stood over her with that evil little laugh…The laugh…
“Son?” I looked up at Pa. “Did you see him kill her?”
“If only I’d gone to her…If only I’d…” I closed my eyes. “It’s my fault he got away! I should have told Mr. Merar right there but I…I…” I stopped.
Pa shook his head. “This isn’t your fault, son. None of it!”
“I panicked, Pa! I hid like a scared kid!”
Pa raised his eyebrows at me. A small grin played at the corners of his mouth. “You were a scared kid.”
I shook my head. “Well, just the same, Pa! I-“
“Tell me what happened.”
I turned and looked out over the range. “A shot sounded from somewhere. She fell over dead.” I shook my head and stared at Pa. ‘Pa, I was so scared! Then he came to stand over her. The gun in his hand…it was smoking…Then he gave an evil little laugh and said something about needing her horse for money to get to…to California.”
“You saw him, son?” I nodded. “I mean…you actually SAW him?”
“Yes sir, I did!”
“Can you tell me what he looks like? Me and Micah?”
My eyes grew wide at the mere thought of it. Pa rested a hand on my shoulder. “It’s important, Mark. Besides that one description, nobody else can tell us. There’s a man in Santa Fe. He’s an artist of sorts. He draws pictures for Wanted Posters. Can you do it, son?”
The thought of thinking on this man’s looks again scared me something awful. “Oh…I can’t remember much more then…”
“I’m not gonna make you, son.” Pa drew his face right in front of mine. “But this man is out there somewhere. He’ll kill another woman or kid for another horse. Think about that.”
Suddenly, I remembered the mark I had seen on the side of his face. In all the panic and shock I’d forgotten it. I gasped and jumped up as I raced into the house. “Mark?” Pa called. “Mark!”
I hurried to my school books sitting on Pa’s desk and tore out a piece of paper. Pa walked up behind me. “What on earth are you doing, son?”
My hand shook as I picked up the pencil. With a shaky hand, I drew the H with a slash through it. I drew it just as I remembered it. As I stared down at it, my hand shook. My heart started beating faster. I jumped from the chair as if the mere picture could kill me on the spot. I drew a shaky finger toward it. “That’s it, Pa. That’s all I can give you. Please…” I turned away and hurried to the window as I stared out. The memory of him rushed back. I could suddenly remember the way he looked…the way he sounded…the way he smelled…
“What is this, son?”
I closed my eyes as the image of that man popped back in to my head. I began gasping for breath as I saw him coming towards me. “I-i-it’s on his f-f-face…”
I suddenly heard the sound of a horse. I looked out the window to see Micah riding up. Pa put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s alright, son. I’ll tell Micah that’s it. You’ve been through enough.”
There was more I needed to tell Pa, but for now that was all I could offer him.
After church two days later, I stood as I watched Pa and Micah talking just outside. I saw Pa turn and look at me. It was obvious he was talking about me. I turned and walked back into the church. Reverend Brown was gathering up his things. “Reverend Brown?” He looked up at me. “Can I talk to you for a second?”
He stepped off the platform and walked over to me. “Your…father told me of your struggle this week.”
The Reverend nodded. “We spoke last night. I’m sorry that happened.”
I bowed my head. “Pa’s worried about me.”
“Yes.” Reverend Brown sighed. “I don’t think there’s a father who doesn’t worry for his children. It’s only natural.” Reverend Brown grew silent. “Your father…tells me you have some guilt. He wants to find a way to take that from you.”
“Maybe…I mean…” I licked my lips and turned to look toward the door. “If I tell you something…I mean, can I confess it to you and be forgiven?”
Reverend Brown nodded. “God’s already forgiven you, Mark…That is, if there’s anything to forgive you for…”
“Well…” I bowed my head. “After that man left…I mean…after he rode away on that woman’s horse…”
“I went out onto the road and called out to her. I didn’t run to her to see if I could help her.” I again lowered my head in shame. “I was…too scared.”
“From what I hear, she died when she hit the ground.” I sighed. “Mark?” I looked up at him. “It wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could do.”
“There’s more.” I swallowed. “The man…he…he got away.”
“Yes. He got away.”
“It’s because of me!” I cried. “It’s because I was scared…because I was afraid!”
“Yes!” I shouted. “I stayed hiding long after he rode away! I stood in the middle of the road. Then when Mr. Merar came, I…”
“You what, son?”
I turned. Pa stood in the doorway. He had an expression on his face that I couldn’t read. Pa walked forward. “You what?”
I looked toward Reverend Brown. He nodded. “I ran and hid.”
The room grew quiet. Reverend Brown looked down at the floor. Pa bent down in front of me and put his hands on my shoulders. “Mark, after what you saw-“
“No!” I cried. “Don’t make excuses for me! I was scared! I ran…and I hid…I should’ve told Mr. Merar right off so we could catch this man. If anyone else dies, it’s my fault!”
“No, son!” Pa cried as he shook his head. “No!”
“I wouldn’t tell you nothing for two days, Pa! You could’ve been looking and-“
“Mark,” Reverend Brown put a hand to my back then. “Mark, you mustn’t let your mind think like this.”
“Son, you’re a child. You grew scared. That’s all!”
Reverend Brown suddenly put a finger to his lips. He placed a hand on my head and bowed his head. “Oh Father God, please help this child find forgiveness in himself. Give him healing in Jesus name.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me. I stared at him. “You didn’t ask God to forgive me.”
“Only you can do that. Besides, there’s nothing for God to forgive you for. You did nothing wrong.”
I looked at Micah who stood at the back. “My staying silent for two days…didn’t that cause this man to…to get away?”
Micah looked toward Pa. Pa turned to me. “Yes son, it did.”
I started to bolt, but Pa kept a firm hold on me. Micah came to kneel beside my Pa. “Son,” Micah cleared his throat. “Listen to me. Your father NEVER lies to you, does he?” I shook my head, knowing he never did. “Reverend Brown…he’s never lied to you. I mean…it’s his job to…to tell you when you do wrong.” I nodded in agreement. “And I…the Marshall…I would never lie to you, would I?”
Pa laid a hand on my cheek and looked in my eyes. “And we are all telling, you son. You…did…nothing wrong!”
“If someone else dies-“ I started.
Pa shook his head. “It’s not your fault.”
I wept again. But this time I wept tears of forgiveness for myself. I threw my arms around Pa and cried. “I wish I could have been strong enough!”
“I think you are one of the strongest people I know, Mark,” Reverend Brown said quietly as he rubbed my back. Pa clung to me as I cried. “A person who cares about a stranger as much as you is very, very strong.”
Pa pulled away from me. “You remember the story I told you the other night?” I nodded. “Nobody ever knew I was in the woods. Ever.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I…” Pa sighed. “I don’t know, Mark.” Pa rubbed my head and smiled. “But you were brave enough to tell us what you knew. That makes you a strong person. Don’t ever doubt that.”
It took me a long time to get over that event. I had several more nightmares, but Pa was there for me and talked me through each one. Though I never really understood why that certain event had such a huge impact on me, Pa told me it had something to do with my sensitive nature. He said I got that from Ma, but if truth be known, I’ve seen a sensitive side to Pa as well.
I was twelve years old when that event came up again. I remember because it wasn’t long after Miss Milly arrived. Milly had kept me inside her store talking for quite some time. Finally, Pa told me that there was a man in jail I needed to identify. I saw the hesitance in his voice as he told me that too. I looked from Milly to Pa. Milly had tears in her eyes. “Who is it?” I asked.
Pa swallowed hard and looked at Milly for support. “Your father…told me about a murder you witnessed once,” Milly said. “When you were barely eleven years old?”
I hadn’t thought on that for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to. The nightmares had been the only reminder that that even had ever occurred. “He…He’s there?” I asked. Just thinking on it made my heart pound.
Pa nodded as he rubbed my shoulder. “We need you to identify him, son.”
“Has he…killed other people?”
Pa hesitated. I didn’t even need his answer. I knew he had. “There’s no one else who…” I allowed my words to die.
“There’s no one else, son.” Pa looked at me. I swallowed as I looked toward the jail. “I…don’t know if I can, Pa,” I answered quietly.
“I’m not gonna push you, Mark. It’s up to you.”
I knew it was. “But if I don’t…”
“Then we’ll have to let him go.”
I’d done that once and he’d killed again. I knew I couldn’t allow him to get loose again. I wiped my hands on my pants, not realizing they were sweaty until this very moment. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. “Well…” I nodded. “Let’s go.”
I walked across the street quickly. I knew that if I slowed, I may decide to just run out of North Fork and never return. I had to do this. It was my duty. And I knew it was what Pa expected me to do.
Micah stood as I entered his office. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” I nodded. “Your Pa and I argued for a long time this afternoon over this.”
I shot my head around and stared at Pa. “You weren’t going to tell me?”
“It was painful for me to watch you go through that, son. I didn’t want to see it happen again.” Pa sighed. “Even a father…can make the wrong decision. Micah finally talked me into this.”
Suddenly, I heard someone yell. “You let me out of here, Marshall!” I gasped. That voice.
I stumbled backwards and bumped into Pa as I suddenly went back in time. I remembered hiding behind that shrub with Blue Boy. I remembered looking into those eyes of his. I remembered his voice – that voice like he was talking through his nose…
I turned toward the door to run outside. I had my hand on the knob before I turned back around. “That’s him, Micah. I’d remember the voice anywhere.”
“Son.” Pa put a hand on my shoulder. “You know that’s not enough.”
I looked up at Pa, knowing he was right. “I know.” I sighed. “I just…I don’t know if…I mean…”
“I’ll be right beside you, son.” Pa looked toward the door. “He deserves to hang. You’re the only one that can make that happen.”
I swallowed as I walked up to the door to the cells. Putting my hand on the doorknob, I turned back and looked at Pa. Pa walked up beside me. I felt my heart begin beating faster as I slowly walked inside. I didn’t turn toward him though. “What do you want?” The man sneered at us.
I looked up at Pa as he stared at the man. I saw his jaw twitching. I knew the mere sight of this man made him angry. I had to see…to know if he was the one. Slowly, I turned around. I looked down at his feet and made my way up to his face. My eyes slowly focused on his face. I saw his eyes…his mustache…the mark on his chin. I felt my throat close up as I walked up to the bars. “You…” I swallowed. “You killed HER! She died with no name when you took that horse! You killed her! You killed her!” I screamed.
Pa put a hand on my shoulder. I watched as the man smiled. “I killed lots a women, boy!” Then he laughed that evil laugh that I had heard so many times. I suddenly felt myself getting sick. I rushed out of the jail and out of Micah’s office. I ran to the back and relieved myself. He made me sick!
When I turned, Pa was standing there. “That’s it, son. It’s over.”
“You mean…I never have to see him again?”
Pa turned and looked at Micah. “Not exactly, son. You’ll…have to testify at his trial.”
“No!” I shook my head. “No!”
Micah held up a hand “Mark, you’re a minor so we can request that he leaves the room during your testimony. He won’t have to be there…that is…unless the judge wants you to identify him. But it’ll only be a moment and that’s it.”
I looked from Pa to Micah. I stuck my hands in my back pockets. “Can’t you just tell them what I said? Please Pa, I…”
“Mark, you know you have to be the one to stand up in court and say what you saw. The circuit judge will be here the end of the week,” Micah declared. “I’m sure we’ll see swift justice at the end of a rope by early next week. You won’t have to worry about him anymore.”
I nodded. “Can’t we go home, Pa? ”
That night as we ate supper, I felt uneasy about the whole thing. Pa didn’t say much. I reckon he was worried about me again. He watched me closely though as I picked at my food. “Mark, you need to eat, son.”
I looked up at him and nodded. “I know, Pa. It’s just that…”
“His name’s Willie Masters.”
I looked up from my plate. “He can’t…I mean…It’s not possible that…” I couldn’t bring myself to ask the question, but then I didn’t have to. Pa knew what I was asking.
“No son. He’ll never get out. I’ll personally see to that.”
That was all that was said, but I still felt sick to my stomach and really uneasy.
As I rode to school the next morning, I paused as I was just coming down the lane to get on the main road when I heard a gunshot fire just above my head. My nightmare turned into reality. I jumped off my horse and started to run for cover, but then I heard a funny little growl just behind me. “Don’t…move!”
A cold chill ran from my head to my toe. I’d know that voice anywhere. “Willie Masters!”
“That’s right!” He gave an evil laugh as he poked a gun in my back. “You snitch! You snitch! Willie’s gonna have some fun with you!”
I cried out in pain as he shoved the gun further into my back and made me start moving. “What do you want?” I demanded to know. “What do you want with me?!”
“You can’t testify against me if you’re dead!”
He led me over to the watering hole – the same one he killed that nice woman at that one day. “Let’s see now.” He grabbed my shoulders and positioned me just right. “I’d say that’s where she was.”
“She didn’t even have a name!” I exclaimed.
“Her name,” Willie shouted in my ear. “Her name was Amelia. She was from High Butte. Wasn’t she a pretty thing?”
I closed my eyes at the smell of his breath. “Yes…she…was!” I answered through clinched teeth. “And you killed her!” I turned and glared at him. “You killed her for her horse!”
“You know,” Willie started as he waved his gun around. “I never DID make it to California. Stuff kept…getting in my way.”
“What happened to Buttermilk?” I suddenly asked.
“The cream colored horse.”
“Ohhhhhhh…..the horse!” He laughed that stupid, haunting laugh. “Yeah…he died – just up and –“ He waved his hand through the air. He laughed again. “Now, come on kid, let’s get this over with. I need to get out of here.”
I tried to stall. “How’d you get out?”
“You know…” Willie laughed. “It’s funny, but that Marshal of yours just happened to trade places with me. He’s sleeping peacefully in my cell. No one will know he’s gone.”
“You killed him?” I cried.
“No…no…” Willie laughed. “I should, but I didn’t! Couldn’t risk anyone hearing a gunshot and coming to look.”
He turned his back to me as he twirled the cylinder of his gun up and down his sleeve. I heard him laugh, “Yes sirree, Ol’ Willie’s gonna have some more fun. Once I get through with you, I’ll be able to head to California.”
I don’t remember thinking I just acted, I ran for the watering hole, took a deep breath, and dove in. I swam for all I was worth. I dove deep when I heard the gunshot. I remember my lungs burning for air. I surfaced and swam. I regretted everything. I regretted not telling Mr. Merar about seeing the murder happen, I regretted not telling Pa and Micah what I saw, but most of all I regretted identifying that man.
“Oh Pa! Please! Know I’m in trouble and come rescue me!” I called to no one.
I heard him laugh, that vile evil laugh. I dove down deep again.
I felt arms lifting me to the surface. As we broke water I screamed, “No! You can’t kill me! I can’t leave my Pa alone!” I struggled against the man carrying me.
The arms held me tighter, the harder I fought. All I saw was the red hair and the H.
I heard the gunshot and my world went dark.
I heard a woman’s voice calling to me, “Mark… Mark… You have to wake up. You can’t let your father worry like this.“
I heard the sound of water trickling and then a cool compress being placed across my forehead
“Mark, it’s okay, wake up son.”
I briefly opened my eyes to see Pa sitting on the bed next to me.
“Oh, Pa!” I cried, “He escaped! He got out and put Micah in the cell! Pa, he tried to kill me! I can’t. I won’t testify! Please Pa, don’t make me!” The more I cried out, the less breath I had to breathe.
Pa pulled me into his arms and shushed me.
“Doc, he’s trembling something fierce,” Pa said.
“I’ll give him a sedative. Lucas just hold his arm for me.” That’s the last thing I remember before everything went dark again.
She was laughing, riding Buttermilk again through the field full of flowers. Only this time, it was different. She wasn’t alone. Another Cream colored horse named Milky rode right beside her. The woman on that horse was my mother. They both laughed together as their hair blew freely in the breeze. They no longer wore braids, but long, flowing hair that fell over their shoulders. “Mark!” I heard a woman speak. “Mark!” They laughed at me. I held out my arms and ran toward them.
“Milky…Milky…” I giggled as I pointed at the horse.
“Mark? Mark?” I opened my eyes to see Milly at my side. She smiled down at me and laid a hand against my cheek. “Who’s Milky?”
I lifted a hand to my head. At first everything was foggy. I didn’t know why I was in bed. Why did I have a bandage over my head? What were all these marks on my arms?
Suddenly, I jumped at the loud sound. “Why! Micah? How could this happen?” I heard Pa’s loud voice as he yelled from the other room. “You let that man escape! He almost killed my boy!”
I turned and stared at Milly. The man with the red hair – the branded H on his face – The gun…”He had a gun! He was going to shoot me!” I bolted up in bed and threw my arms around Milly. “He was gonna shoot me cause I identified him!”
I heard the door open. Pa and Micah stood behind Milly as she comforted me. I shook my head and then closed my eyes. “I can’t testify! I can’t!” I cried.
Milly smoothed my hair and held me as I cried. I opened my eyes to see Micah hurry out of the room. I heard the front door slam and I jumped at the sound. Pa put a hand to his mouth as he watched me. I saw the sorrow on his face as he left the room.
Milly laid me back down on the bed. “It’s okay, Mark. You’re safe.”
“Where is he?!” I demanded. “Where’s that man? Did they kill him? Did they?”
Milly suddenly stood and ran to the window. Her back was to me. I heard her crying.
I slowly sat up in bed. I heard shouting outside. Milly ran to the door and bolted out. I jumped from the bed. I grabbed the wall to steady myself as everything spun. Slowly, I made my way to the window. I could hear their arguing.
“Lucas, you have a son in there who needs you to hold him!” I heard Micah state.
Then Pa yelled back, “Micah, you should be out there finding this man!”
Then Milly demanded, “What are you two doing?! Your son is in his bed, scared, and you’re out here yelling at each other?”
Pa pointed toward the house. “Milly, my son was almost killed because he let the prisoner escape!”
I watched Milly cross her arms. “He didn’t let the prisoner escape! What would you have done, Lucas McCain? If a man is laying on the floor doubled over in pain screaming that his insides hurt, just what would you have done!”
“I would have let that man rot!” Pa said through clinched teeth.
“I don’t believe that,” Milly said then.
“It doesn’t matter!” Pa shouted.
“Lucas McCain, you and Micah have been good friends for how long? Do you really think he just ‘let’ this happen? Don’t you think he’s feeling guilty enough as it is?!”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I bolted out the bedroom door and made my way outside. “Stop it!” I screamed as I walked out the door.
Pa turned and started toward me, but I held up my hand. “No! Don’t, Pa! Just don’t!” I screamed. “This is all my fault! It’s all…” I suddenly fell to my knees and pressed my arms against my middle as I began weeping. “You are all fighting because of me! I can’t stand it – any of this…anymore! I just…can’t…” My world wouldn’t stop spinning!
I felt Pa lift me into his arms. In a soft voice, he said, “Let’s get you back to bed, son.”
Pa tucked me back into bed and sat down beside me. He smoothed my hair back as he smiled sadly into my eyes. “How do you feel, son?
“Pa, please don’t fight. Just…tell me what happened.”
“Later, son.” Pa shook his head.
“Pa, please! I’ve got to know! I’ve got to know now!”
Milly stepped forward and put a hand on Pa’s shoulder. “Tell him, Lucas.”
I watched as Pa turned to look at Milly. Then he looked toward Micah. “Tell him. Tell him everything.”
Micah put his arm around Milly’s shoulder as they walked out. Pa turned and looked at me. “What happened?”
Pa sighed deeply as he ran his hand through my hair. “Masters…” Pa sighed. “Masters pretended to be sick two nights ago. I reckon he was pretty convincing at it. Micah opened the cell to check on him. You know how bad Micah’s arm bothers him sometimes? Well, this was one of those nights. Anyhow, when he bent down to check on Masters, Masters grabbed his gun and hit him over the head with it. It…shouldn’t of happened.”
I couldn’t say anything.
Pa sighed. “Anyway, Abe Merar was driving down the road the next morning when he heard gunshots and shouting. He saw Masters there with you, struggling in the water. He saw Masters point his gun at you and heard him fire. Abe fired at Masters and you both went under.” Pa looked into my eyes. “Son, Merar almost died saving you. He went under several times looking for you. He finally found you and carried you in his arms as he brought you back to the ranch.” Pa stopped talking and raised his eyes to look up. He closed his eyes as he spoke next, “You…You almost died.”
“And Masters?” I asked.
“He…” Pa sighed. “The whole time Abe was trying to save you, he never saw Maters come out of the water.” Pa looked away then. I could tell there was more.
“I heard you tell Micah he should be out looking for Masters. What did you mean?”
“This happened yesterday, son. You’ve been unconscious for a whole day. Micah and some others, they dragged the waters all day way into last night. They…” Pa sighed again. “…never found Masters.”
Tears slid down my cheeks. “Then… He’s still alive?” Panic started to grip a hold of me.
“I don’t know, Mark.” Pa’s voice broke. “I don’t know.”
“But he could be!” I tried to jump out of my bed, but things started to go black and the room spun again. Pa pushed me back down on the pillow. “Pa, he’s gonna come back to kill me! He is!”
“He may just disappear, son.”
“So he’ll kill again?” Tears spung to my eyes. “Pa…Because of me, he’ll kill again?!.”
I turned from him and rolled over in my bed. “I need to be alone.” Pa just sat there. “Please!” I cried. I so much wanted Pa to hold me in his arms, but my mind would only see Masters and hear his cruel laugh. I forced my eyes shut and tried to block out his image.
For 14 months, I had been able to repress my fears. I’d been able to pretend they didn’t exist. But now that he knew I was here, that I had seen him kill a woman and I had identified him, there was nothing to keep me from fearing the worse.
As I lay there in my bed, I struggled with my emotions, knowing my life was in mortal danger. Neither Micah nor my Pa had been able to protect me… My world spun out of control again.
*A special thanks goes to Michelle Palmer for her help in revising these episodes.
Waste ~ part 1
Waste - part 2
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
part 1 & 2 credits
& piddlin' stuff.....
around The McCain Ranch