Pa poured the coffee over the fire. I heard it sizzle. “Ready to go?”
I nodded. “After the adventure we’ve just been on, I’d just as soon never leave North Fork ever again!” Pa smiled and looked at me as we mounted our horses.
I couldn’t believe how free I felt! I hollered excitedly as I mounted Blue Boy and began galloping toward North Fork. “We’ll be home in two hours!” I declared. “Two whole hours!”
Before I knew it, we were riding into the streets of North Fork. I stopped my horse on the edge of town, closed my eyes and took in a great big sniff of fresh North Fork air. I smiled really big. I was content. “Nothing like a trial to get you back to appreciating what you have, huh son?”
“A trial?” I squeaked out. “That was a trial?” I shook my head. “Well, if it’s all the same to you, I’d just assume not ever have a trial like that again!”Micah hurried out of his office. “Well, it’s about time you two were getting back! I was just about to ride to Mexico looking for you two! Micah noticed the bruises that Pa still wore. “What-“ he started.
Pa shook his head as he dismounted his horse. Out of instinct, Micah gave Pa a hand down. “You okay, Lucas Boy?” Pa nodded. “What happened to you two? You were supposed to be back days ago!” Micah’s voice had turned from a sound to relief to one of scolding.
I immediately jumped to Pa’s defense. “Well, we took a little…side trip, you might say,” I stated as I stood beside Pa and crossed my arms. Pa looked down at me and raised an eyebrow. “You see, Pa got beaten and hung from a tree. I was kidnapped by bandits and forced into hard labor while Pa-“
“Hard labor?” Micah interrupted. He turned to Pa and looked at his face. “What’d they hit you with, Lucas Boy?”
“The butt of my rifle,” Pa answered.
“Your rifle? You gave them your rifle?”
Pa rolled his eyes. “By force, Micah.” Pa looked down at me. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it anymore!”
Milly came running up to us. I smiled as she stopped right before reaching Pa and looked up into his face. “Lucas! Where have you been? You told me you’d be back several days ago and-“
“Well, you see Milly, we-“ I started.
Pa laid a firm hand on my shoulder and shot me a warning look. “The trip just took longer then expected and-“
Milly suddenly gasped and grabbed Pa’s chin. She forced his head to one side so she could see the bruise on his neck. “Does this have anything to do with it?” Milly’s eyes held worry. Pa put an arm around her and walked her back to the General Store. I wondered if he was telling her the whole truth and nothing but…or if he was sugar coating it so she wouldn’t cry. Pa said he hates it when Milly cries – which wasn’t too often because she was pretty stout, but once was too often for him.
“Now, why don’t you tell me the rest of the-“ Micah started.
But a couple of the Connor boys came running up then. They wanted to know if I wanted to go fishing. “Sure,” I answered. I turned to Micah. “Pa will be in the store for awhile. I won’t be gone too long!”
We hadn’t been fishing very long when Pa was there. He leaned against the tree and folded his arms. “Well, I don’t recall giving you permission to go fishing, son. We need to get back to the ranch.” Pa looked up at the Connor boys. All he had to do was give them a look and they picked up their stuff and walked further downstream. Pa sat down next to me. “The truth is, son, that I need to talk to you.”
“Yes sir?” His voice held hesitation, so I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to hear.
“There was a letter waiting for me at the General Store, son. Since my getting that seed bull didn’t pan out, I need to make this trip.” Pa sighed. “It’s on the other side of Dead Man’s Crossing.”
My head shot around. “No, Pa! No!” I cried. Pa put a hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes. “Pa, you can’t!” The last time he’d gone across there, he and Micah had almost died of thirst after an outlaw chased the horses off. Before that, Pa and I had almost died of thirst going across. “It’s Dead Man’s Crossing, Pa! You’ve done tried it twice and barely lived to tell about you! I just-“
“I’m leaving in the morning. You’ll stay with Milly.” There was a sternness in Pa’s eyes.
“Pa, you can’t! You mustn’t!” I cried.
Pa stood up. “Now, let’s get home. We need to get ready.” I stared at him as he started to walk away. He turned. “Well, come on, boy!” I heard the warning in his voice. I knew the decision had been made and I wasn’t to say another word about it.
The next morning, Pa sent me in to pack my things. “You’ll come out and take care of your chores, son. Billy Lehigh and Donnell will be watching the cattle for another week. I can’t afford anymore so I must stay home for awhile after this trip!”
“Pa, can I talk to you?” I swallowed. “Man to man?”
Pa looked up from his coffee cup and pulled the chair out beside me. “Sure,” he answered, motioning to the chair.
I nodded and sat down. “Pa, I’m thirteen years old.” Pa sighed and closed his eyes as if he knew where I was going with this. “I’ve held myself pretty good the last few months, haven’t I? I even was able to take care of myself when I was being held by bandits. And when you were blind, I took care of this ranch pretty good and-“
“Mark.” Pa sighed as he swirled the coffee around in his cup. “I know where this is going and my answer’s the same. No.”
“Why not?” I suddenly shot out. “I’m not a kid! When you gonna give me the chance to-“ I started.
Pa shook his head. “Mark, there’s no reason for you to grow up faster then you already are. I don’t like leaving you here alone at night.”
“But Micah can come check on me every day if need be and-“ I started in again.
“No, Mark.” I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders in surrender. Pa sighed. He gently reached out and laid his hand on mine. “Mark, like I’ve told you before, it’s not a matter of you’re being old enough. It’s a matter of my confidence that you’ll be okay here and my not worrying - and I’m not there yet. I’m sorry, son, but you are too special for me to risk it when I’m not sure you are ready yet. I have to be sure.” Pa stood and put a hand on my shoulder. “You are becoming a fine man, but Mark, manhood is a big responsibility. You can’t even use a rifle yet. Suppose there was trouble. You would be here unprotected and alone – far from any other ranch. As long as I’m responsible for you, I have to make the decisions for your well-being. That’s the way it is.”
The next thing I knew, I was standing on the front porch of Milly’s General Store waving goodbye to my Pa. “You do understand, don’t you, Mark?” Pa had told her my feelings on staying at home by myself.
I watched Pa leave. Milly didn’t know he was going to Dead Man’s Crossing and I’d been sworn to secrecy. I nodded as I watched him go. “Yeah, I think I do.” Because I was feeling the same things right now for Pa.
Milly asked me to help her stock the shelves, then I sat down to look at a catalog that had come in. As I thumbed through it, I suddenly saw the word birthday on a page and gasped. “Milly, Pa’s birthday’s coming up at the end of the month!” I declared.
“Oh?” Milly raised an eyebrow as she folded the messed up yard goods. “Oh really?” she asked. “When exactly is it?”
“It’s July 30,” I answered. “He’ll be 39 years old.”
Miss Milly folded her arms and drummed her fingers. “Oh really?” She asked with a mischievous smile. “Hm…” She walked over to the calendar on the wall. “Let’s see…that’s about four weeks away, isn’t it?”
I stood up and slowly walked over to her. “I think there’s something I should tell you about my Pa, Miss Milly.” I cleared my throat. “He doesn’t like people knowing about his birthday. He doesn’t celebrate.”
“Oh?” Milly asked as her smile brightened. “Well, I’d say it’s about time we changed that.” Milly hurried toward the door. “Mark, I need you to mind the store! I’ve some work to do!”
I started to tell her – to warn her how much trouble she could get in. I hurried to the door and watched her run down the street toward the café. I shook my head. Well, she’d surely see Pa’s wrath if she was planning on a big party for him! My Pa’d never stand for that. I suddenly turned and wrinkled up my face. And I was the one who revealed the family secret! I shook my head. “Boy, am I gonna get it!”
While Milly was gone, I thumbed through the catalog trying to figure out what to get Pa for his birthday. Nothing caught my fancy. I had to help a few customers – something I did at times to help out Miss Milly. Milly came back about an hour later grinning from ear to ear. I shook my head at her. “You shouldn’t have done that,” I warned her.
“Pa doesn’t like anyone knowing about his birthday – he doesn’t like parties in his honor!”
Milly opened the ledger to start doing her figuring for the day. “Now don’t you worry, Mark, I can take care of your father!”
“He’s gonna skin me for telling you.”
She turned and looked at me. “Now, don’t you worry about that either. I won’t let him touch one single hair on you head!”
I wasn’t so sure.
I walked down to the blacksmith later that day to see if Nils needed any help. He told me I could brush down one of the horses. Suddenly, I noticed a used saddle sitting in the corner. I walked over and picked it up. I remembered how much damage Pa’s saddle had suffered at the hand of the Mexican bandits. In fact, Pa said he’d have to sell a head of beef to get enough money to afford a new one. I bent down and ran my hand against the smooth leather. Someone had definitely taken good care of this saddle!
“Nils?” He turned and looked toward me. “How much for this saddle?” Nils named a figure. I looked down at it and shook my head. That was a lot of money! It would be perfect for my Pa’s birthday! “Could you…hold it for me?”
Nils walked over and stood beside me. “It’s a little big for you, sonny.”
“It’s not for me,” I answered as I smiled.
“Oh, you’re thinking of your Pa’s birthday?” Nils asked.
I slowly stood up. “You know?” Nils said Milly told him. I ran a nervous hand through my hair. “Oh boy! Boy oh boy!” I looked back toward the saddle. “Well, can you…hold it for me or not?”
“Sure, Mark. I’m in no hurry to sell it. I’ll hold if for a couple weeks.” I smiled my thanks then ran out the door.
I hurried to the General Store as fast as I could. “Miss Milly! Miss Milly!” Milly ran up to me with a panicked look on her face. “I know what I want to get Pa for his birthday!” I told her about the saddle Nils had. Then I told her how much it was.
Milly shook her head. “You could never afford it, Mark. How bout if we go in on it together?”
I shook my head. “No! This has to be from me! Only from me!” I looked around. “Um…could you use another pair of hands here in the store?” Milly shook her head. “I can do the stocking and heavy lifting. I can mind the store for you!” I ran up to her and leaned over the counter. “Oh please, Miss Milly, please!”
She shook her head violently from side to side. “I don’t think your father would approve of you having a job, Mark.”
I didn’t think he would either, but I’d deal with that when the time came. “It’ll work out! Please?” I leaned in really close to her and gave her the sweetest face I could muster!
But Milly held up a hand. “Oh no you don’t, mister! Don’t you even try to get me involved in your little scheme! I’m already going to have lots of sweet talking to do over your father’s surprise birthday party. I-“
My head shot up. “Surprise-“ I sighed. “Yeah, if you’re throwing him a surprise birthday party, you best plan on moving across the ocean!”
It was getting late. I wanted to go asking for jobs around town, but she declared it was time to eat since I had to take a bath. “A bath?” I practically shouted. “There’s no church tomorrow! The circuit riding preacher won’t be here this week!”
Milly nodded. “That doesn’t mean you have to go around stinking!” I opened my mouth to argue, but she gave me a look – one that warned me not to argue.
“Yes ma’am,” I grumbled. I started toward the kitchen. “If Pa let me stay home by myself, I wouldn’t have to take a bath! I’d just go without a whole week and I wouldn’t even have to wash every morning!” I grumbled.
“Which is one reason why your father insists you stay with me!” Miss Milly insisted. I suddenly felt a swat on my backside and rolled my eyes. “And don’t forget behind your ears!”
The next day, Milly forbade me to go asking around about a job. Instead, I went fishing with the boys all afternoon. Then Monday morning I had to go to school. Because it was our first week back after a two week break, we seemed to have more homework then usual. Milly made me do homework first thing. I told her Pa would let me spend an hour or so playing after school. She simply put her hands on her hips and declared, “Well, I’m not your father!” Then she pointed inside the store without saying another word.
It wasn’t until Thursday afternoon that I had a chance to go look for work. Milly ordered me to finish my milk before I even got a chance to run outside. I ran straight to the hotel, but Eddie only shook his head. Then I ran to Micah. He was busy cleaning the office. I followed him around as I asked. “I could sweep out the cells for you and mop the floors! I’ll keep you desk all neat and-“ I bumped into him as he turned around.
“Mark!” Micah gasped. I apologized. “Why do you want a job?”
“Well, it’s Pa’s birthday and-“ I started.
“I know…l know…at the end of the month.” Micah shook his head. “I don’t know who started spreading the word, but your father’s going to be awful sore when he gets home!”
“I know, I know…” I said softly as I shook my head. “But right now I need a job so I can buy Pa a new saddle.”
“Well now, that’s a right smart idea!” Micah stated proudly. “I’m sorry I can’t help you, Mark! Why don’t you try Nils.”
“Go right to the source!” I declared. I hurried down and found Nils at the forge. He was working on his horseshoeing and shaking his head at a neighbor. “I’m sorry! Between shoeing horses and grooming animals, I just haven’t had time, Landon! It’ll be at least another week before I can get to it!”
I smiled. “Yes!” I declared. I ran up to Nils. “Nils?” He didn’t stop working as I started talking. “You know, Pa’s taught me all about grooming animals, and I’m right good at it. Why, there’s no way you’d find dirt under the saddle of my horse – no siree!”
“That’s good,” Nils said.
“A-a-and I’m good at riding horses and cleaning stables. I’m right good at it!’ I declared.
“That’s great,” Nils declared.
“Well, how about if I work for you doing those things?” Nils suddenly stopped and turned to stare at me. “Well, I mean…I could use the work and you could use the help. I really need to earn the money…really bad!”
“I don’t know, Mark…” Nils scratched his head. “Have you talked to your father about this?”
“Course not!” I answered honestly. “But he’s been out of town since Saturday and I…well…I want this to be a surprise for him. He’s done so much for me that I want to give him something extra special for his birthday!’
Nils scratched his head. “Well…alright. How about Saturdays and after school?”
“Yes sir!” I answered. “Can I start this Saturday?”
I jumped up and down. “Yipee!” I shouted. I started to run out of the stable, but suddenly remembered my manners. I hurried back over to Nils and held out my hand. “Um…I mean, thanks Nils!” We shook hands then I ran out the door.
I ran over to the General Store. Milly was just closing, but I hurried in before she locked the door. “I got a job! I got a job!” I declared. “I’ll be working for Nils starting next Saturday and after school!”
“That’s great, Mark.” Milly folded her arms. “Though I don’t want to be around when you break this news to your father.”
“It’s for a good cause!”
“I know,” Milly nodded. “But I still don’t think your father’s going to go for it.”
“I’m not a kid!” I declared. “I’m thirteen years old!”
Milly held up her hands. “You better get out to the ranch and get your chores done. I’ll have supper ready when you get back.”
Friday afternoon, I could hardly sit still! I couldn’t believe I’d be starting my job tomorrow! I had been talking about it all day – when I had the chance to start. I ran down the steps after school. Pa was outside waiting for me. I ran up to him and hugged him. After not seeing him for a week, I didn’t care who saw our embrace! All the kids knew Pa and I were close.
“You got the new cattle?” I asked. Pa nodded. “Can we go home then?”
As we rode home, I tried to think on the best way to break the news to Pa, but frankly, my heart was racing like a freight train. I listened to Pa tell of his adventures on his trip, but my heart just wasn’t in the conversation! I opened my mouth several times to tell Pa about the job, but I was a coward when it came to going up against my Pa, and I just simply didn’t know how to break the news to him.
But I was bound and determined to show Pa I could be a man with manly responsibilities! I was ready for more responsibility! I could handle it – I knew I could!
Unfortunately, the conversation never came up that evening. While I washed dishes, Pa spit out orders of things he wanted done tomorrow. He had chopped wood that day while I was in school, and he told me I had to stack it in the morning. I groaned. “Something wrong?”
“Oh, no sir,’ I answered.
“Good,” Pa said. “Because along with your regular milking and chopping the wood, I also want you to paint the flower boxes. I’ve been telling you to do that all summer, if you recall.”
“I’m sorry Pa,” I said as I threw down the towel. “I…I’ve just been so busy that-“
“Yeah,” Pa said as he cleared his throat. “Well, I want them painted tomorrow!”
It took a long time for me to go to sleep that night. I was so worried I wouldn’t wake up in time in the morning – and I KNEW I had to wake up in time! So when I woke up when it was still dark, I carefully walked over to Pa’s bed and picked up the clock. Carrying it up to the window, I looked to see what time it was. 4:30…I told Mr. Swenson I’d be at work at 7:00 AM, so it was time for me to start my day!
In no time, the milking was done. At first light, I groomed and saddled my horse, then I hurried inside to fix a fire. While the fire was warming, I hurried outside to paint the flower box. I knew I wasn’t doing a right perfect job, but I was too busy to worry about neatness today! Besides, I wanted to leave before Pa got up – I figured leaving him a note would avoid the whole matter of telling him face-to-face.
But Pa got up before I was able to leave. I hurried and packed a lunch as Pa came out and asked me why I was up so early. “I was gonna leave you a note.” I avoided the question. But you know my Pa!”
“Where are you going, son?”
He was still pretty tired from his trip. I figured I could skirt around the issue. “To town.” I started to move passed me, but he held a hand out and stopped me.
“Wait! You still have your Saturday chores to do. I told you last night that flower box needed painting, remember?”
“I remember,” I answered a bit impatiently.
I scooted around him and busied myself with the saddle bags. I was still trying to avoid a direct answer. He demanded to know if I’d stacked the firewood. I told him I had. I started out the door, but again he stopped me. “Now wait a minute, son. What’s all the rush?”
By the look on his face, I could tell he expected an answer. “Well, it wouldn’t look good if I was late my first day!” There, it was out! Just as I expected, he wanted to know what it was my first day for. I answered as casually as I could. As quickly as I could, I told Pa about my job – as if he should have figured that out by now!
Just as I expected, though, Pa wasn’t very happy. “Well what about your homework and your chores around here after school?”
“Don’t worry, Pa, I’ll get them done!” I declared. Then I turned and rushed out the door. I forgot to close it, so I quickly turned to close the door. There, now maybe I could make my escape before Pa came outside and dragged me back in! I stopped for just a second at the wood pile. “Ewww…I’ll get hollered at for that! But this was important – punishment would be worth it in the end,” I muttered. Then I jumped on my horse and quickly rode toward town.
It was after seven when I got there. I quickly jumped off my horse and rushed inside. “I…I’m awful sorry I’m late!” I declared. “My Pa…he insisted on talking to me.” I stood in front of Nils. “Well,” I smiled. “I’m ready to start!”
Nils nodded. “You can start by grooming these horses.”
“Yes sir!” I declared enthusiastically. I smiled and hummed as I started working. Nils turned and looked at me, then left with a shake of his head.
I tell you, I worked hard for a solid two hours! Micah came in to return a borrowed horse at one point. I took his money for the rent and told him I’d give it to Mr. Swenson. “Mr. Swenson, huh?” Micah shook his head with approval. “My, but you are taking this seriously!”
“Yes sir, now…uh…is there anything else I can do for you, Marshal Torrance?” Micah raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “Well then, if you’ll excuse me, I best get back to work!”
But it was only minutes later when Pa came through the door. I saw him coming toward the stables with an awfully sour look on his face. “Uh oh,” I sighed. I quickly made myself look really busy, hoping that would keep Pa from yelling at me. He walked in calling my name. I jumped up on a stool and started brushing off the top of the horse. I greeted him as he walked over to me. He still had a really sour look on his face. “I’ll be with you in a minute just as soon as I’m finished with this.”
But my professional-sounding voice didn’t go over too well with Pa. ! “I want to talk to you, son, now!”
I knew why he had come to talk to me, but I had a job to do. I had to prove to Pa that I was old enough to hold down a job and earn money myself. I suppose that’s why I said what I said. I didn’t stop working as I spoke. “Well, you’ve always said yourself, Pa, that when there’s a job to be done, get it done.”
I bent down to brush the horse’s hind legs. “That’s exactly what I want to talk to you about.” Pa bent down so he could look straight in my eyes. “You didn’t get the job done.”
I decided to play innocent. I knew he was mad, but I had to keep it together – I had to stay strong, knowing that whatever punishment I got now would be well worth it when he got his birthday present in two weeks! He started hollering at me about the mess I had left at home. I promised myself I would let that happen again.
Then Pa started asking me why I wanted to work. I tried and tried to explain to him that I wanted to earn my very own money, but he didn’t seem to understand. It didn’t make sense buying him a present with his money! I wanted to buy him a present with my very own money! Money I had honestly earned – apart from my Pa! This year, I wanted it to be a true gift from me to him!
I knew he was mad, but there was nothing I could do with him. Suddenly, Nils was back. I told Pa I had to get back to work. But then I heard Pa call out to Nils. From the tone of his voice, I knew he was really riled, and he was about to take his anger out on Nils next!
I stood at the door and listened as Nils gave him an earful. He was talking so fast and was so mad that I didn’t here everything he said. But I know he was accusing Nils of hiring me as “cheap labor” and taking me off the street! Finally, Nils yelled at Pa and told him to listen to him! Whoo boy, but this was getting ugly!
Pa demanded to know what I wanted the money for. I waved my hands in the air, begging Nils not to tell Pa anything. Nils finally told Pa that he’d let me go if Pa wanted him to. I held my breath and waited for Pa’s answer. Boy, but I was sure relieved when Pa said to forget it. Then Pa walked away.
Nils allowed me to take a lunch break at noon. He threw me a couple coins and told me to go grab us a couple sandwiches down at the café. When I went down there, Pa was there talking to Milly. I walked up to the bar and placed my order. I could feel Pa looking at me. Finally, he stood and walked over to me. “How’s it going, son?”
“Okay, Pa.” I sighed as he continued staring at me. I cleared my throat. “Listen Pa, I know you’re angry with me, and I’m sorry. I have a good reason for-“
“What is it, son?” Pa asked quietly. I turned back toward the counter. “Can’t you tell me?”
I stood as I handed the coins to the server. “I can’t, Pa. Just be patient.” I stood and started to walk away.
Pa grabbed my arm and turned me around, looking me straight in the eye. “I won’t have you neglecting your chores, boy. Now…when you get home, we’ll discuss this.”
I looked toward Milly. She shot me a sympathetic look and shrugged. Well, no one told me finding my independence would be easy! I turned and grabbed the sandwiches. “I’ll see you tonight, Pa,” I mumbled. Then I walked away.
“I gotta get home and do my own work,” I heard Pa say to Milly. I turned from the door and saw a look in Pa’s eyes. It was a look that told me he didn’t understand what I was doing. As I walked back toward the stable, I began wondering if the end result would be worth the misery I was putting Pa through.
Nils let me leave at four o’clock. He told me he would only keep me until noon next Saturday as he started to hand me my pay for the day. I started to protest. “You’ll make enough to buy that saddle, boy.” Nils promised me. “I’m sorry, but I have my orders.”
“My Pa?” I asked. He nodded. I handed him the money back. “Put that toward my saddle.”
Nils shook his head. “I think it’s best that you hold on to this for now. Show your father how much I paid you today so he knows I’m giving honest wages.”
I shook my head, stating that wasn’t necessary. Nils said it was. “Don’t be too upset with your father, boy. He’s not used to having a boy who can be so independent is all. He’s growing just like you are.”
I didn’t really understand what he meant, but I decided to just do things his way.
When I got home, I put my horse up. Pa was laying down hay in the stalls. “I can do that, Pa,” I started.
Pa turned and looked at me. “I haven’t had time to clean the house or do laundry, so tomorrow after church you’ll be doing that. All afternoon.” I nodded. “I know I don’t usually make you do chores on Sundays, but this is an exception since I had to do yours today, son.” I started to walk out of the barn. Pa came up behind me and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Mark, part of being a responsible adult is to not neglect your chores while doing your work.”
I walked inside and finished supper for Pa. I purposely laid the money on the table and went back to work. When Pa came inside, he saw the money on the table and picked it up “Well, good bit of money for a hard day’s work, son,” he said. I looked into his face. I saw satisfaction. I smiled as he handed it to me and I stuffed it into my pocket.
I don’t remember much about supper, except that Pa again asked me to give up the job and borrow the needed money from him. I was falling asleep as we talked – I was starving, but I was tired. I suddenly felt Pa lift me from my chair and tell me to get to bed. He shook his head as he followed me into the room.
When I got in there, I sat down on my bed and started to topple over, but Pa ran over to the bed. I heard him chuckling. My eyes opened at that. “What’s funny?” I mumbled.
I felt my boot being slipped off. “You know how long it’s been since I helped you get ready for bed?” I felt the other boot slip off as I lifted my shirt off my head. Pa gave me my night shirt and I got under the covers. I don’t think I was completely awake as I laid down, but I felt the covers slip over me, then I heard Pa blow the light out. He walked to the door and turned to look at me. “Night, son.”
“Mark, come on, get up! You got morning chores to do!” Pa was shaking me.
I sat up on the side of the bed and rubbed my face. “Ohhhhhhh…” I groaned. “I ache in places I’ve never hurt before.”
I managed to do my morning chores, but I was so exhausted. Pa studied me carefully all through breakfast, but he didn’t say anything. As we walked out to the saddled horses in our Sunday best, Pa looked at me once more. I mounted Blue Boy and suddenly turned to Pa. “There’s something you want to ask me.”
“Well…no. Let’s get to church!”
But while I sat and listened to the Reverend’s sermon, I felt Pa’s eyes on me. I had a sneaking suspicion that he wouldn’t be able to tell me one single thing the preacher said that morning. I didn’t want to ask him about that though.
True to his word, when I got home, Pa started counting off chores on his fingers that I was to get done. I groaned inwardly as I listened to the long list, among it was laundry, scrubbing the floors, and changing the hay in the barn. There were others there too. I made the mistake of asking Pa what he was going to do, and he jerked his head around and gave me the dirtiest stare! Whoo boy! I assured him that when he got back from working with the cattle, I’d have my chores done!
Monday, I reminded Pa at breakfast that I was going to work at the livery after school. Pa sat down his fork. “What about your homework?”
“I’ll get it done,” I answered.
“And your chores?”
“I’ll get them done too.” I swallowed my milk. “I’ll be home right after work.”
“After work,” Pa moaned. I stood and gathered up my stuff to leave. “Five o’clock,” Pa said sternly as he pointed a finger at me.
“Five-“ I turned from the door. “Pa, school let’s out at 3. That only gives me an hour to-“
“Five o’clock. On the dot. If you ain’t back by then, they’ll be consequences.” Pa narrowed his eyes at me as he spoke.
“Yes sir,” I answered. Then I walked out the door.
That afternoon, I did get home five minutes before five. Pa ordered me to get right on my chores. I was almost done by supper. By the time I got the dishes washed and the rest of my chores done, I didn’t have much time for homework. Pa announced when it was my bedtime. I looked down at my book and shook my head. “Pa, now that I’m doing a man’s work at the livery, don’t you think I should be able to-“
“I said bed,” Pa stated in a louder and firmer voice. I closed my books and went to bed.
Tuesday, I decided to talk to Mr. Griswald about my unfinished homework. We came to an agreement that I would stay in at recesses and lunch so I could work on it. I still didn’t get it all done and I was sorry. Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Griswald announced that he had no choice but to mark me off for any unfinished homework. I knew Pa would be soar when he found out.
I was so tired by Friday that Nils told me to take the evening off. I started to argue with him, but he assured me I had almost earned enough to pay for the saddle. I was happy, because I knew Pa wouldn’t stand for this much longer. I’d gotten in trouble for being late twice that week, and it was only a matter of time before Pa found out about my missed assignments. I hoped it would be all worth it in the end though.
Friday when I got home, I chopped the firewood as fast as I could. Pa asked me why I was home so early today and I told him I needed to catch up on my chores – especially since I had been given extra chores for being late the day before. After my chores were done, I sat down to work on my homework. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face when he walked in and saw me studying. “Homework on a Friday night?”
I nodded with a cockeyed smile. “I’m trying to catch up, Pa. I want to get ahead on some of my lessons so I don’t have so much to do next week.”
Pa came and sat down at the table beside me. He studied me quietly for awhile. “You miss fishing with your friends?” I nodded. “You miss playing ball after school and having those lazy Saturdays where you take three hours to chop wood because you’re day dreaming?” I nodded again. “Do you miss those long, slow horseback rides?” Again I nodded. “Then, why are you giving them up?”
“Only for awhile,” I answered.
“Why, son? Don’t you miss doing kid stuff?”
I looked up from my book and looked at Pa. “Yes Pa, very much.” Pa raised his eyebrows and stared at me silently. “Pa, can I please do my homework?”
I saw a sudden hurt come over his face. He quickly stood up and scooted in his chair. I watched him go out the door, slamming the door as he left. I jumped at the noise.
I just sat there in the chair staring down at my history book. I wanted to run after him and tell him everything. “One more week!” I told myself. “Only one more week, then he’ll understand.”
Things were strained between us the next morning. I rushed through my chores, but made sure I got them done properly this time. But before I could leave, Pa demanded to know how much longer this was going to go on. I hated doing what I did – I knew it only made Pa angrier at me then he already was. I left, refusing to answer his questions.
I didn’t even ask Nils that day what he wanted me to do. I immediately started cleaning out the stalls. Nils had made it very clear that I was only to work until noon. He promised me, though, that I’d make enough money to earn a saddle.
Then Nils sent me to deliver a horse to the Merar ranch and bring another one back. He told me it would take me an hour to get out there. But I knew of a cutoff that would get me there faster.
He told me not to go through the Border Pass. He told me it was no place for a boy.
But when I got to the road that went through the pass, I took it. I figured I could prove to everyone that I wasn’t a boy – I could be a man and take on more responsibility. I wanted to prove something to my Pa…to Nils…to everyone – that I was growing into a responsible adult.
So I took the Pass.
That’s when that stranger stopped me. At first, he didn’t seem mean. He had to shoot his horse and I was sorry for him. But then he asked me for my horse. I tried to stay strong. I told him I was on an errand for the livery stable in North Fork. He told me to get off the horse.
I did. I watched him mount. “Please don’t levee me here!” I begged. “Please!”
“Get to walking, boy.” He started riding away. “Get to walking.”
I looked down the road. I was a long way from nowhere! I suddenly found myself in trouble! I walked for a long time, and finally found myself among some rocks when I heard shouting. I stepped out and saw two men struggling. Pa was shaking the stranger, threatening him. “Pa!” I shouted. Pa dropped the man and stepped out of the water. I watched him step out of the water and pick up a gun. I knew I had done wrong.
I really mssed up. I wanted to prove I was old enough to take on more responsibility – but I’d proved just the opposite. “Mr. Swenson told me not to take the shortcut. You’ve got a right to be angry with me.”
Pa just stood there. He didn’t reach out and take me in his arms, glad I was alive. He didn’t even put his hand on my shoulder. He didn’t smile. His words were simple…and painful…“Yes I have, son. But let’s forget it for now. I’m glad you’re alright.”
Forget it for now. That meant he was too busy right now to yell at me – he had a criminal to get back to town. “Alright, Mister, stand up!” Pa demanded. He took the rope from his saddle and ordered me to tie his hands. I tied them as tight as I could and helped him on the horse.
I rode behind Pa as we led the man back to town. Pa rode the man down Main Street. Everyone stopped on the street and pointed at us. We stopped in front of the Marshal’s office and dismounted. Pa stopped at the door. “Sit right here. Don’t move until I get back,” Pa ordered.
I waited for a long time. Pa finally came out and looked at me. “Let’s go.” I asked him where we’re going. “When a man makes a mistake, son, he must face the music.”
We headed toward the Livery Stable. I knew what my first order of business was – to report what I had done wrong. Pa stood just outside the stable and ordered me to go inside. I stepped just inside the door. Nils stood before me. “What happened to you, boy?”
I turned and looked at Pa. Pa stood in a stance with his arms crossed and his face held a stern look. He just glared at me. I swallowed and turned back to Nils. “I took the Boarder Pass.”
Nils crossed his arms. “Didn’t I tell you not to go that way? I thought I was pretty clear on that.”
I hung my head. “Ye-Yes sir. I’m sorry.” I swallowed. I heard Pa clear his throat from behind me and I immediately lifted my head and looked back into Nils’s eyes. “I was very wrong. I should have obeyed you. I put my life in danger.”
“Well, I’m glad you are okay,” Nils answered. Nils looked up at my Pa. I turned and looked at him. The look on Pa’s face was clear as he stood there with his arms sternly crossed and stood at his full height with his head lifted high. Nils had no choice. “I’m afraid you can’t work here anymore, Mark. You’re fired.”
Hearing the words from his mouth suddenly sent tears to my eyes, but I pushed them back. I knew I had broken the rules, and Nils was doing the only thing he could do. “Yes sir.”
“I’ll give you the pay for today.” Nils gave me the money. “I’m sorry, son. It’s a hard lesson, but that’s how we learn.” Then he turned and walked back into the stable.
Pa walked up to me and motioned for me to follow him down the street. We stood in front of the saloon. “Wait here.” Pa went inside. When he returned, Mr. Merar was standing beside him. Pa stepped off the boardwalk and walked down the street. I turned and looked at him. There he was again – in the same stance with his arms crossed and his head held high.
I turned and looked up into Mr. Merar’s eyes. “Your…your horse is over there in front of Micah’s.” I swallowed. “I was on my way back with it when…” I lowered my head.
“Did you take my horse through the Boarder Pass, boy?” He asked. I nodded. “And you know that your father and I don’t even take that road?” I nodded. “Outlaws travel up and down that road all the time, son. Didn’t you know that?” His voice was booming and stern.
“Ye…Yes sir,” I answered.
“Then why did you do it?” He asked.
Again I swallowed. “I…I…I wanted to show everyone how grown up I am.”
“By taking a dangerous road that a sensible man doesn’t travel down?” Mr. Merar’s voice boomed at me. I only nodded.
“Perhaps you did some growing up, today.” I looked up at him as he walked over to his horse. He never said another word.
I wanted to cry, but right now, crying wasn’t an option.
Pa came to stand beside me. I felt so ashamed that I couldn’t look at him. “How’s it feel to be a man now, son?” I looked up into his disappointed eyes. He sighed. “Okay, let’s go,” Pa stated.
“Where now?” I asked. I didn’t think I could stand anymore humiliation.
“Home,” Pa answered. “Now it’s my turn.”
I knew Pa’s words and punishment would be worse then what I’d already received. As we walked to our horses, Milly ran out. “Mark, I heard you were missing!” She threw her arms around me. “Are you okay?”
I looked at Pa. “I…I’m fine, thank you.” I lowered my head. “I…I disobeyed orders and got into some trouble.”
Milly looked at Pa and gave him a sympathetic smile. “I’ll see you in the morning,” Pa smiled at her.
It was a quiet ride home. I had a lot of thinking to do, and I reckon that’s how Pa wanted it. When we stopped in front of the house, we just sat there in silence on the horses. Neither of us spoke – we just both thought about what had happened. “Why’d you do it?” Pa asked quietly.
“I don’t-“ I started. But I sighed as I looked down at the ground. “I reckon I was trying to show that I was mature. I just showed how immature I still am.”
Pa slid off his horse. “I’ll take the horses to the barn. You go on to your room now.”
I obeyed him. Pa came in a while later and sat down beside me on the bed. He looked into my eyes and then gave me a small smile. He put an arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “You know I love you, son.” I nodded.
Pa stood and walked across the room, slapping his hands together. “I’m angry, son. I reckon you know that.”
“I deserve it,” I whispered.
Pa hit the wall in frustration. “Oh, I know some of what Micah said is true. You are growing up! It’s hard for me to grow with you – it wasn’t supposed to happen so fast!”
I suddenly lifted my head and stared at Pa. “Sir?”
Pa turned around and walked back towards me. He bent down in front of me and put a hand on my shoulder. “You are growing up, son. You really are. You are becoming a young man – not a…boy…who has to be told what to do every waking minute.” Pa suddenly stood up and hurried back to the window. “Oh, but why is this so hard?” He stared out the window. “It seems like just yesterday you were…” His voice died.
There was an eerie silence in the air for several minutes. I knew I couldn’t move or speak – not until Pa gave me permission. Suddenly he turned. “What were you thinking, Mark? I’ve told you over and over not to EVER take the Boarder Pass! I don’t even take that pass and I’m a grown man!”
“Yes sir, I…I know.” I sighed.
“Well?” Pa asked suddenly.
“You were just so riled that I wasn’t old enough to work and…I…I guess I wanted to impress everyone and show them how mature I was and…I…I…I lost sight of the truth-to remember what you taught me. It was a stupid thing I did.”
“Yes it was.” Pa scratched under his nose as he crossed his arms and studied me. “Well, we’ve already established that you won’t be working for Nils anymore – or anyone else in this town until further notice. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir,” I whispered.
I cleared my throat. “Yes sir.”
Pa nodded. “And you will be restricted for a month. You will do chores and homework. There will be no fishing or swimming after school – and no going off by yourself. In a month, I’ll begin treating you like a young man. Again.”.
I turned away from him then. I didn’t want him to see the sudden tears in my eyes. At the word “again,” I realized something for the first time. He had been treating me like a man already – a young man, which is what I was. I had lost sight of that in light of working. “I just wanta be like you.”
“Oh, I messed up plenty when I was your age.” Pa put his arms around me then. “I worked at your age, but only because I had to. My folks had several children as you know, and it was hard keeping them fed. You don’t have to work, son. When your restrictions are lifted, we’ll talk on your earning some extra money from other people – but finishing your schooling is very…VERY important to me.”
I could kick myself for what I had done today. Pa knew I was mad. “Son, a man makes decisions – he has to live with those decisions. When a man messes up, the consequences can be deadly.”
That’s all that was said. Pa didn’t sugar coat it for me, and I was happy for that. I knew I had mess up and had to be punished – but a month did seem a bit extreme to me.
The week passed slowly for me. I took all my money into town and gave it to Nils but I was two dollars short. Nils suggested I do a few odd chores for him to make up the difference, but I shook my head, reporting what Pa’s strict orders were. I knew what I had to do.
I kept my head held high as I walked into the General Store. Walking up to the counter, I cleared my throat. Milly turned and smiled at me. “You want some candy?”
“Uh…no ma’am. Not today. I need to talk to you.” She closed her ledger and leaned over the counter. “What is it, Mark?”
I looked around the room to make sure no one was listening. “Remember that item I placed on order a couple weeks ago?”
Milly smiled and looked through her papers. “Ah yes,” she answered. “You gave me two dollars down, and I told you that when you gave me another two I’d order it.”
“Yes ma’am.” I nodded. I had been so excited when I saw it in the catalog some weeks ago, but I needed the money for something more important. “Well, I’d like to cancel that. Can I have my two dollars?”
“Are you sure, Mark?” Miss Milly asked. “You were so excited.”
I nodded. “There’s something more important – for Pa’s birthday.”
Milly smiled as she handed me the two dollars. “Mark, you are the sweetest boy a father – or mother – could ever have! I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing.” She looked toward the door. “Is your father in town?” I shook my head. “We’re throwing him a birthday party at the hotel tomorrow night. You need to get him into town then.”
“How?” I asked.
She shrugged. Then she turned and looked on the shelves. She turned back and looked at me. “Mark,” she put an arm around my shoulders and smiled. “I have the perfect idea!”
After leaving Milly’s, I raced back over to the livery with the rest of the money. “I have to get home, Nils! I’m on restrictions for a whole month so…” Nils took the money and nodded. “I’ll have this saddle out first light in the morning. My stable hand will drop it off.”
I thanked him then hurried home. I did get hollered at for being late. While Pa was hollering, I just stood and nodded my head – but inside I was grinning!
The next morning, I hurried out to the barn to milk the cow. The stable hand snuck inside and gave me the saddle. I thanked him as I hurried back to the house with it. I began polishing it. “Mark?” I suddenly heard form behind me.
I quickly pulled the tablecloth off the table and covered the saddle. “Morning, Pa.”
. “I thought we settled this working business last Saturday.” Pa took another step toward me. “You’re not gonna start that again, are ya?”
“No sir,” I quickly answered.
"Well then, why are you up so early?”
"No special reason."
Pa tried to look behind me. "What are you hiding there?" He asked.
I stepped aside. Pa walked up and stared at the mound on the chair. I pulled the tablecloth off. "Happy Birthday, Pa!" I revealed a saddle.
Pa hardly looked at the saddle. He was too busy staring in amazement at me.. "You mean…this is the reason that..."
"I bought it with the money that Mr. Swenson paid me. I wanted to earn it Pa. I wanted this to be something from me to you...really!" Pa was speechless! "Well, it isn't exactly new or anythin'...but it's real shinny," I said..
Pa finally forced himself to take his eyes off me and picked up the saddle. He laid his hand on it. "Son, I…I'd say this is the shiniest saddle in the whole world!" He smiled. “Thank you.”
I just stared at him for the longest time. I thought he was going to cry. Pa sat the saddle down and hugged me. “Thank you,” he said again. “How did you-“ He suddenly stopped.
I busied myself with cleaning up my mess and starting breakfast. “I had to hide a lot of things from you the last couple of weeks, Pa. I had to tell a few white lies too. I hope you can forgive me.”
“Forgive you?” Pa walked into the kitchen and put a hand on my shoulder. “I think we should go on a long horseback ride after…we do these dishes.”
I turned and smiled at Pa. “What about my list of chores for the day?”
Pa brushed my hair back from my face and smiled. “I think we can forget about your punishment….for one day, son.” He smiled at me.
After breakfast, we did go on a long horseback ride. Pa rode in his new saddle, but laughed that it was a bit too smooth! We took a picnic lunch along and enjoyed eating out by the lake. It was nice to just lay there in the grass and eat our sandwiches as we talked. We laughed and chatted together as Pa told me stories of birthdays passed.
We were both laughing and joking when we got home. I’d never seen Pa so happy. I knew I had done right to buy him the saddle. Pa knew what I was thinking. “It’s not the saddle that makes me happy, son.” Pa laid a hand on my cheek and smiled deep into my eyes. “It’s the love and devotion that went into buying that saddle.”
“I’ll fix supper tonight, Pa.” I smiled as I watched Pa make his way out to the barn to get some work done.
Forty-Five minutes later, Pa stared into the pot on the stove. “What is it?” He asked.
“Well…I put in some of that left over ham we had and some chicken stew and potatoes – then I just mixed it all together.” Pa looked up and sniffed the air. “Oh, and I think I added some greens…just for added taste.”
Pa turned and looked at me. “What…what do you call it?” He lifted the spoon out and allowed the mixture to slide off the spoon. It fell back into the pan with a noisy plop.
“Well…” I shrugged. “I reckon you could call it…Mark’s delight.”
Pa lifted an eyebrow at me then licked a bite off the spoon. He threw the spoon back into the pan and stuck out his tongue in disgust. “Okay Mark, I love you…you know that…But if this is your idea of fancy cooking…well, I’d soon as you not do anymore cooking!”
“You mean…You don’t like it?” I asked with mock sorrow.
“Like it?” Pa shook his head as he put his hands on his hips. “Mark, that stuff is repulsive! It smells worse then the outhouse in July!”
I smiled to myself, happy that our plan was working. “Oh, but Pa…that’s supper!”
Pa looked around the kitchen. He shook his head. “No, son. That-“ He pointed to the stove. “That isn’t even fit for the pigs to eat!” He grabbed his hat. “Come on.”
“Where we going?”
“To town. It’s my birthday, by thunder, and I’m going to have something good to eat!”
I smiled in my heart. Our plan was working perfectly! Pa and I worked together hitching up the team. Then we rode into town. The closer we got, the louder and faster my heart started pumping. I sure do hope Milly knew what she was doing! “Boy oh boy,” I said out loud, shaking my head.
“What’s that?” Pa asked.
“Nothing,” I answered suddenly. “Just excited about eating in town.”
Pa looked around the street. “Sure are a lot of people here…somewhere,” Pa stated. There were horses tied to the posts all up and down the street. “Even for a Saturday night…You know, it’s awfully…quiet…for there to be so many unoccupied horses.
Pa suddenly stopped and turned to look at me. I couldn’t help myself! I know I looked really nervous. “Mark?”
“Uh…” I jumped off the wagon seat. “Let’s go eat, Pa.”
We walked inside the hotel. Suddenly, out of the darkness was a great big “Surprise!” Lanterns were lit. I turned and looked at Pa’s face. I couldn’t read the expression.
“What the devil-“ Pa started. He looked down at me. Suddenly, he put his hands on his hips and gave me a disapproving look. “Mark Warren McCain!”
Milly hurried forward and stood behind me. She wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me close to her. “Don’t you lay one hand on this boy, Lucas McCain! Now I know how you feel about parties in your honor, but you’ve done many things for everyone in this room, and this is just our way to thank you!” Milly stuck her chin out, daring Pa to defile her. “Now, you will have fun tonight, Lucas McCain. AND you will thank us!”
Pa stared into Milly’s eyes. I lifted my head to look at Milly. She had a challenging stare on her face. Pa gave a short sigh. “Okay, let’s get it over with.”
Milly held me back while Pa walked by shaking his head. “You may need to protect me from his wrath later,” I whispered.
“I’ll need the same from you,” Milly whispered back.
“Come along, son,” Pa called.
The party was a blast! Every guitar and fiddle player in town was there and we had dancing and singing well into the night. I stayed up for as long as I could. My yawns grew heavier and heavier, however, and eventually, Milly came and put an arm around my shoulder. “Your father told me to get you to bed.”
“Oh, no!” I groaned. “I want to stay up! Dancing’s so much fun!”
“I’m sorry, Mark. It’s way past your bedtime!” Milly led me upstairs and put me in a room. I went to the window and stared outside. I could hear people laughing on the street below. Some were even walking out of the saloon. I smiled as I watched young folks hanging onto each other and sneaking around the back of buildings to steal a kiss every now and then.
“Mark!” I turned to see Pa walk in. “Get under those covers!”
I hurried and undressed. Then I slid under the covers. Pa pulled the blankets over me and sat on the bed. “You having a good time?”
Pa smiled. “I am, I must admit. But believe you me – you and Milly are going to get a very firm lecture from me tomorrow afternoon!” I laughed.
“This your best birthday ever? Huh Pa?” I started to sit up.
Pa pushed me back down on the bed. “The best birthday ever.” He smiled down at me. “I only have my boy for a few more years. Then I’ll have grandchildren.”
“Oh Pa!” I shook my head.
Pa smiled. “Now, I’ll be up in a bit. You go to sleep.” I watched Pa walk to the door. “I promised a few ladies I’d dance with them.”
“What about Milly?” I asked.
“She’ll get her turn. At the end.” Pa grinned at me. “If she didn’t want me dancing with them, she shouldn’t have invited them.”
I smiled as Pa walked out and closed the door. That’s my Pa!
*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