I reached in my saddle bags and took out the letters. When Milly’s mail came, it was always an exciting time! Ever since she left North Fork last April, the three of us had written back and forth. Pa and I both loved Milly and her letters always brought joy to our faces. But it brought a special joy to Pa’s face. He was mesmerized by her letters and would read them several times.
Now, this is a little complicated. You see, Pa was in love with Milly, but he was spending time with Lou. I heard Pa explain it once. He said he was lonely and adult relationships were complicated. The funny thing is that Milly told me the same thing. So, I just watched and enjoyed the scene.
I handed Pa the letter. Today was no different than any other day. He took the letter, sat down in his chair, and stared as he read it word for word. But today was different.
I wasn’t trying to spy on what he was doing. But as I watched him from the corner of my eye, I watched him rub a hand across his mouth. Then he turned and looked toward the door. He slowly stood up and stared at the letter. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
Pa hurried toward the door. “I have to go to town, son. You stay here.” I stood and watched him leave, wondering what the letter said.
I almost had supper ready when Pa came back. He smiled at me as he sat his hat down and washed his hand. I saw something in his eyes – regret and relief at the same time. “Pa?”
Pa motioned for me to sit down then said grace. After I lifted my head, Pa sighed. “When Lou and I started…spending time together, it was out of friendship. I’ve…been in love with Milly – maybe since before she left and her being gone made me lonely. But after I’ve been thinking that, well… ever since your accident I’m just not ready to be anything thing more than good friends with Lou. And then the letter I got tonight, I…well, I decided to talk to Lou to make sure she understood where we stood. I told her I couldn’t spend any more time with her, unless it was just as good friends.”
“Is Milly coming back, Pa?” I asked excitedly.
“No son, but I know I love her. I just couldn’t go on deceiving myself and Lou anymore. Lou needs someone who can commit to her. My heart isn’t mine to commit. It’s already committed to someone.”
“I’ve seen you and Lou together, Pa. I…If you love Milly, then why…”
Pa pressed his lips together as he gave me one of those looks. “Well, son…it’s…” Pa sighed. “I guess I was just so lonely for Milly that, well, that…I’m not saying what I did is right. But Lou and I are just friends and we won’t be seen alone together anymore. I hope you understand what I’m trying to say?” I nodded.
And that’s all that was said about the matter. After that, Pa and Lou would still smile at each other, but you could tell that they were being casual; and in the beginning they always made sure that I was around. It was kind of funny, actually…all the times Pa chastised me about not being where I should be or doing what I should be doing, just to make sure they were proper. And now, I didn’t have a moment’s time alone when they were both together. I saw sadness in Lou’s eyes for awhile, but eventually she began to warm up to Pa again, laughing with him or at him, quoting her dearly departed father. Just like old times, neither were worried about being seen talking to each other on the streets of North Fork or worried about what others thought when they saw us sitting together at church. Pa, Lou, and me, we’re all good friends.
About friendship, I often wondered about Pa and me. I saw other fathers and sons, and the way some of them showed love for their sons by a pat on the back or a smile; most boys my age didn’t feel the physical expressions of love that My Pa gave. He’s put an arm around my shoulder or hugged me. So one evening while we were sitting on the front porch looking out over the range, I brought the subject up.
“My father was very expressive. I would get made fun of because my Pa was always squeezing my shoulder or something. I’d watch my folks together and they were always hugging or stealing a kiss.” Pa turned to me and smiled. From the look in his eyes, I think maybe he was remembering back to his childhood or maybe my childhood. “It wasn’t the norm…still isn’t…but it’s the way I grew up, son. Every morning when I got up, I’d come into the kitchen of our farm house and find my Pa and Ma hugging. And many times he’d be kissing her. My father wanted his family to know that he loved us and felt at times, words were just too inadequate to express how he felt. It wasn’t something they would hide because there wasn’t anything wrong with it and Pa taught us that right off.”
Pa turned to me as he toyed with his cigar. “When your mother and I were courting, I was a gentleman and behaved, but I did steal a lot of kisses when we were alone. Because I grew up seeing that, it just came natural. And then when you came along, I learned to express my love for you in the same way. I gave you a lot of hugs…and I kissed you every day. I guess I have a different, special kind of relationship with you and its not just because its only the two of us, but after you were born… when your Ma was so sick… It was up to me to see you through your first month of life. I was always carrying you with me, whenever I could. It brought us closer together. And as you’ve grown up, I’ve not been able to carry you all the time, but my love for you is expressed through a squeeze of the shoulder, a swat on your backside, or a great big old bear hug. I’ve always wanted you to know that I’m here for you and I love you. It’s just the way we are.”
“I understand that, Pa, but we’re like more than father and son. We’re like best friends. But we’re not best friends…I mean…You can be hard with me at times…” Pa lifted his eyebrows. I quickly cleared my throat. “Uh…I mean stern. And you can yell at me something awful.” I cringed just thinking about it. “Your hands can be a soft as can be with me one second, then hard as a rock the next. Yet no matter what look you are giving me or even if you are yelling at me really loud I…well, I know you truly love me.”
“It’s just the way we are, son. It was that way the first time we laid eyes on each other. After your mother gave birth to you, I stared at you as the doctor worked on clearing your lungs and such. Then when he laid you in my arms, I smiled down into your face and you stared up at me through those little squints. You were…beautiful!”
“Aw, Pa! Boys aren’t beautiful!” I rolled my eyes.
“Well, this boy was a baby, and you WERE beautiful! I’ve never seen a more beautiful baby in all my days and I suspect I never will.” Pa said as he smiled at me. “We became friends instantly.”
“I guess you described it best one day in teasing. You’re a friendly Pa.” Pa looked deep into my face to make sure that I was okay with the reference to my ordeal when Neff Packer had orchestrated my kidnapping. Then I turned and looked back over the range.
But I felt Pa’s eyes still on me. “Mark?” I turned and looked at him. “I may be a friendly Pa, but at the moment I’m going to be more of a Pa then a friend.” He smiled at me. “Goodnight.”
“Well Pa, I was wondering about something…” I started. But Pa narrowed his eyes and lifted his eyebrows. “Oh right! Goodnight, Pa.” I started to stand. But I suddenly turned and kissed him on the cheek. Before he could react, I stood and hurried into the house.
The next afternoon, I came straight home from school and had lunch with Pa. After lunch, I took my dishes to the sink. “Son, I have some repairs to do here at the ranch this afternoon. I want you to go out and ride fence.” I didn’t argue, but did his bidding.
As I rode, I found a section of the fence line down on the South 40. There were three or four posts down – rotted at the base. I figured Pa would be upset that neither of us had noticed the bases hat rotted as I hurried home to tell Pa who was really hard at work – sitting at the table inside drinking a cup of coffee. I folded my arms and narrowed my eyes at him. “Well, you look to be working really hard…partner!”
Pa lifted his eyebrows over his coffee cup. “Well son, I’m glad you finally noticed after all these years.” I shook my head at him. “Don’t tell me you’re done riding fence line already.”
“No. I thought I should let you know part of the fence line is down.” I shook my head at him. “I sure hate to uh…interrupt you from all your hard work, but I’m afraid you will have to endure more sweat and…”
Pa stood up with a sigh. “Mark, your sarcasm is noted.” He shoved a finger toward the door. As we walked out, I told him where the fence line was down. As we walked toward our saddled horses, he mentioned that there were only ten head grazing over there. We’d put them on the East pasture.
It took us most of the afternoon to get the cattle moved. Pa told me he thought I’d earned my keep for the day so we could head on back to the ranch. But when we got back, we saw an unfamiliar horse outside the house. Even from where I stood, I could see that someone was there, inside our home. Pa grabbed his rifle from the scabbard and silently motioned for me to stay back. I obeyed as he started forward.
Quietly, Pa walked up to the horse and studied him. Then he shifted his rifle to his other hand and stepped up onto the porch. Quietly, he opened the door. “Looking for something mister? What are you doing here?” I heard Pa ask.
I watched Pa step inside. I started forward as quietly as Pa did. I wasn’t sure if he’d appreciate me being out there or not, so I listened from outside the door. “…in your hometown, Enid, Oklahoma,” I heard a man with an accent say. “I think this would explain.” I’d never heard this kind of an accent before and I tried to imagine what exotic location this man came from.
“Johnny Morgan?” I jumped a little as I heard Pa exclaim. I listened in as the stranger told Pa Johnny Morgan had said he was a good friend of Pa’s. “That’s right, the oldest and best,” I heard Pa declare proudly. The stranger told Pa that he had stopped for some legal advice and Johnny was most gracious and helpful. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Rosati.”
Pa invited him to sit down for a cup of coffee. He was on his way to San Francisco and Johnny told him to stop by and say hello to us during his two day lay-over in North Fork. “So here I am, and hello.”
“Hello. Your name is Rosati, you say?” Pa asked. Then I heard his first name. Mario Rosati was his name. “Oh, I’m sorry for that greeting I gave you, but uh…” Pa started. He said he understood – one couldn’t be too carful with strangers. “Well, any friend of Johnny’s isn’t a stranger to me,” Pa declared.
Quite by accident, Pa saw me lurking in the doorway, I’d peaked around the doorframe too much. I guess he was so interested in talking to Mr. Rosati. That he forgot to gripe at me about eaves-dropping. He started to introduce me, but he knew my name already. “Mark.”
“Well, it seems like Mr. Rosati knows a little bit about us, son!” Pa declared as we shook hands.
Pa started to tell me who he was. I interrupted him. “…a friend of uh…Johnny Morgan,” I said.
. “Well…it seems like Mark knows a little about you too!” Pa declared. But I heard the warning of a stern unspoken lecture in his voice. But a lecture I had heard many times before.
“Well, I sorta saddled up to the door,” I admitted with a grin.
Pa asked Mario where his baggage was. He told us he’d left it with the stage master. He’d rented a horse in town and rode out. “Well Mark, do you mind saddling into town and picking up Mr. Rosati’s baggage? He’ll be staying with us.” Mario started to decline the invitation, but Pa wouldn’t hear of it!
Neither would I! When we had guests, I tended not to get lectured to and griped at so much! “And we don’t take no for an answer!”
“See what I mean?” Pa looked up at me. “Alright, son, get going!” he ordered. I hurried out the door.
I rode straight to the hotel. Lou was sitting at the desk drinking a cup of coffee. “Well…” I folded my arms. “Seems everybody’s just sitting around drinking coffee today. Seems I’m the only one working.”
“For your information, young man, this is the first time I have sat down all day!” Lou declared heartedly. She sat down her cup with a hard tap. “Now, what can I do for ye?”
I grinned mischievously. “Suppose I just rode into town to visit with ye?” I teased her. Lou narrowed her eyes at me and pinched her lips together. I held up my hands. “Alright. Alright, Lou. Seems everybody’s sensitive today!” I laughed. “A man came out to the ranch. His name is Mario uh…Ros…Ros…”
“Roaiti?” Lou asked.
“That’s it! Anyways, apparently he was riding through Enid, Oklahoma, our hometown, and saw an old friend of ours. Pa talks about him some, but I don’t really remember him. His name’s Johnny Morgan. He’s some sort of lawyer or something. Anyhow…”
“Mark?” Lou raised her eyebrows at my rambling.
“Oh…well anyhow, Pa’s invited him to stay at the ranch and I’ve come to get his bag.” Lou nodded and told me his room number. I started to go, but paused as I turned back to her.
“Uh…Lou?” Lou had stood to go, but turned back and looked at me. “Uh…Pa told me about…about talking to you. I…hope we can still be friends.”
Lou smiled. “Mark, your father told me about Milly when I first settled here. I knew where I stood. I know your father doesn’t want you talking to me about this anymore than I want to, but let’s just say I’m adjusting. This…Milly Scott…She must be awful special for your father to wait so long for her.”
“You’re mighty special too, Lou,” I smiled at her.
“As for being friends, Mark, we never stopped. All three of us are still good friends.” We smiled at each other. “Well, go on with yourself!”
I hurried home. When I got there, Pa was again sitting at the table drinking coffee. Pa looked up at me. “I’m about to start supper, Mark. How about if you go on out and work on your chores.”
I looked from Pa to Mario. “You two been visiting ever since I left?”
“Of course not, son. This is a ranch – not a social club! I put his horse away.” Pa grinned at me. “Besides, I’m trying to make a man out of you.”
“Now did you ever see the likes of this?” I asked Mario as I shook my head. “He sits around and drinks coffee while I do all the work!”
“And I get to dish out punishment too! Life doesn’t get any better than this,” Pa declared sarcastically as he started to wave me out the door.
I started to leave. “Mark!” I turned back to Mario. Part of his smile died on his face. “Uh…I have seen it before…” He looked down at the table as he thought, then lifted his head back up to me. “In my own father.”
I smiled. Then I hurried out to do my chores. I was almost done when Mario came out. He said supper would be ready in ten minutes. Then he asked, “What else needs done, Mark?”
“Oh, nothing!” I declared. “I wouldn’t think of…” I stopped and smiled. “Actually, the eggs need gathered.” Mario nodded and immediately went to take care of that chore.
“Supper!” I heard Pa call from the door. I hurried inside and washed up. Then as we sat down at the table I immediately reached for the meat. “Mark!” Pa practically shouted in my ear. “Where are you manners at tonight, boy?”
“Excuse me,” I declared sheepishly as I bowed my head. Pa said the blessing then served Mario. As I started filling my plate, I turned to Mario. “Where are you from?”
“A small town in Italy,” Mario answered.
“Oh. What’s the name of it?”
Mario busied himself with dipping vegetables on his plate. “We had a farm a lot like some of these around here…when I was young.” Mario took a bite. “I was about your age when we…we lost it.”
“You…You lost it?” I leaned into him. “How’d you lose it?”
Pa cleared his throat. “Mark, it’s not polite to ask so many questions, son.”
“No no, it’s okay, Lucas. It’s history.” Mario took a sip of his coffee before he continued. “Well Mark, The farm I grew up on…until I was 15…It was the farm my grandfather settled. My father was born on that farm when it was new. Farming isn’t like ranching. The land – you have to pour your sweat into it and your success depends a lot on the weather. The whole family…from the father to the wife to even the smallest child…they all work long, hard hours every day. It took years to build up the land. My grandfather paid dearly for it.”
“I’ve heard about farming. I’ve heard how people lose their homes because of the lack of rain or…or even too much rain.”
“There’s other things that can take your land, Mark.” I studied him as a deep sadness came on his face. “I remember when we were at the market one day…my sister and me and there were some men weeping. They said a whole group of men came in and took their farm from them the night before. The family was eating supper one night when these men just burst into their house. They cocked a rifle and pointed to the door. Told them to get out.”
“And they just went? Without a fight?” I asked in surprise.
Mario nodded. “There were several rifles on the one in the house. The man had to do what was best for his family…or die.” I looked over at Pa. He had a sorrowful look on his face. We both knew why – if it had happened to our ranch, Pa would have died. He would have fought for his land.
“Did the town do anything? I mean the Marshal or…or…” I stopped when I saw Pa’s raised eyebrows. “What?”
Pa sighed. “Son, they probably didn’t have any law.”
“No…” I turned and looked at Mario. “No law?” Mario shook his head. “Everyone was unprotected?”
“From the Society, yes.” Mario looked down at his plate. “They didn’t stop at that one farm, Mark. Every day we got more reports about people being forced off their land by the Society. My father and I were close and we both carried our rifles with us everywhere, prepared to fight.” Mario shook his head as he stared at me. “My grandfather died working that land. They found him in the fields one day. My father said he’d die the same way. I…” Mario suddenly stood from the table. “When it was over, I left Italy and came here to the United States. I wanted nothing to do with that place again.”
“Did they do the same to your family?” Mario turned from me as he stared out the window. “Mario?”
“Mark.” Pa spoke my name with a warning. I looked up at him. He shook his head. “If you’re done son, you can start clearing the dishes.” I turned and looked at Mario. He looked so burdened. I wanted to go to him and talk to him about this. “Mark?” I turned and looked at Pa. He raised his eyebrows and pointed toward the kitchen.
As I was finishing up the dishes, I watched Pa go outside to finish up his nightly chores. I knew Pa didn’t want me to bother Mario anymore. But I wanted to understand What had happened. I looked toward the door. Pa would be gone for awhile. So slowly, I made my way over to where Mario was getting ready for bed. "Mario...I was thinking...it sure is hard to believe.”
"What?" he asked.
“Your reason for coming here.”
"Hard to believe?"
"Yeah...what you were tellin' Pa and me at supper. About the way things are in your country," I stated.
"Oh," he said as he told me to sit down next to him. "All those people workin' the land from the time they were young...'till the time they die and then just to have someone just come in and take it all away from them...to always live in such fear."
"Society is something to fear...never knowing when or where it's going to strike," said Mario.
"Yeah but they're just a bunch of bandits!" I exclaimed, sickened that a whole society was allowing them to take over. But Mario told me it was much more than that, they are an organization which spread's far and wide like the tentacles of an octopus. I just could not get over the fact that no one tried to stop them. Mario told me that fear paralyzes most men. Some brave men have spoken up, but unfortunately their voices were stilled by either bullets to the heart.....a stiletto to the throat or a garrote, which is a weapon of strangulation prided by the societies trained by the professional assassinations. He told me they would come in the middle of the night while the victim was sleeping and with one hard pull the life is snuffed out.
"Anyhow...that's all behind you now," I said happily. I was glad he was here.
"The wound heals Mark, but there's always the scar to remind one of the pain," said Mario.
“You’ll forget,” I assured him. “In this country a man keeps what he works for.”
"I guess I'll have to get used to that.”
"Like my Pa says, with hard work there's nothing you set your mind to that you can't get. And there's nothing to fear either. Course I'm not saying that we never run into any trouble but then my Pa, why he stands up and fights!” I declared proudly. I knew that if my father had been in Mario’s country, he wouldn’t have given up without a fight.
“And he usually wins?” Mario asked.
“Well, he always wins, against all comers!" I spoke with much pride and admiration for my father.
Pa walked in then. Mario turned to speak to him as he put up his rifle. “Lucas, I envy you!” Mario declared. Pa wondered what that was all about. “You’ve the passionate champion!”
Pa laughed. Pointing at me, he said, “I wouldn’t say he’s a fair judge.”
"Well I'd like to know of anyone around here who can get the better of ya'!" I exclaimed.
“There must be somebody,” Pa answered as he smiled at Mario.
But Mario disagreed, he knew how I felt because that was the exact way he felt about his father. "So it must be true."
“Well, we’ve got a big day tomorrow.” Pa took off his hat and plopped it on the table. “Let’s turn in, son. Goodnight, Mario.”
I followed Pa into the bedroom and closed the door. I just leaned against the door and crossed my arms as I thought about Mario. “Pa?”
“Hm?” Pa mumbled as he walked over to the closet.
“Mario…He looked so sad when he was talking about what happened in his country.” I sighed as I leaned my head against the door. “You think that…that maybe there’s more to what happened than he’s saying?”
“I’d say so,” Pa said as he walked towards me carrying a blanket.
“Well like what?” I asked.
Pa held out the blanket to me. “Son…uh, take this blanket out to Mario. Then you better get to bed.” He sat down and started taking his boots off.
I walked out and gave Mario the blanket, letting him know I was glad he’d decided to stay with us. Then I walked back into the bedroom. “Pa?” Pa looked up at me as he unbuttoned his shirt. “What more do you think…”
Pa sighed. “Look Mark, I think a lot of hard things happened to him. From the way he acts, I suspect that he experienced the Society personally. He said he had a farm….But I don’t want you asking him anymore questions.”
“Oh, but Pa! I…” Pa raised his eyebrows at me. “Well, like he said…it’s history.”
“Son, sometimes history is better off left buried. Just be his friend. Let him keep his past buried if he so chooses.”
“You’re not…asking me.” It was a statement – not a question.
“No son, I’m not.” Pa and I locked eyes. Then he motioned toward my bed. And I understood he meant, “NOW.”
“Mark!” I groaned as I put the pillow over my head. “Mark McCain!” I felt a boot tapping me on the backside.
“What?” I mumbled.
“That’s your final warning. Get up and get ready for school.” I groaned again. This time, the boot on my back side was a little harder. “Okay, Pa…” I sat up slowly and wiped my eyes. “What time is it?”
“Mario is out doing your chores. He said it makes him feel useful. For every chore he does for you, it will be taken from your allowance.”
Not THAT news got me moving! I jumped out of bed, dressed, splashed some water on my face, and hurried outside. As I worked on feeding the horses, I turned to Mario. “You have ranches in Italy?”
“Of course, Mark. I’ve rounded up a few cattle in my day.” Mario answered as he laid down fresh hay.
“You reckon when I get home from school you could ride with me while I do my chores? Pa’s forcing me to do all this hard labor this afternoon. I have to ride out and take a head count on the cattle and make sure they’re all healthy and all.”
Mario straightened up. He leaned on the pitchfork as he studied me. “Mark…Don’t ever complain about this work. It’s good, solid work. If you lose yourself…Well, let’s just say you’ll always be looking back on what you had. Ranching is like farming…It’s good, honest, hard, sweaty work.”
“Breakfast!” Pa announced.
Pa and Mario talked while we ate breakfast. As I carried my dishes to the sink, I asked, “Did you ever have to wash dishes?”
Mario looked at my Pa and chuckled. “Of course, Mark. Why do you ask?”
“Well…” I walked back to the table. “Don’t seem like a rancher should have to do such stuff.”
“If you don’t wash dishes, Mark, you won’t have anything to put your food on. It’s all part of the job.”
“Mark…” Pa pointed toward the door. I nodded and picked up my books. After turning and looking at Mario one last time, I hurried out the door.
And it seems that when I have something exciting to look forward to the morning always seems to drag by. I found myself yawning through the history lesson that morning. Mr. Griswald stared hard at me a few times but didn’t ever say anything. When noon came, I jumped on Blue Boy and hurried home.
I was very excited when I got home to find Mario there waiting for me. I listened as Mario told us about Italy. I listened to him talk about his father. He was a lot like me when he was a boy. I laughed at some of the tricks he used to pull on his own father, surprised at how similar they were to my own mischief. Pa shook his head stating that Mario may be giving me some ideas. Mario laughed with us. At one point, I saw him watching me intently. He had a very lost look on his face.
“Is something wrong?” I asked softly. Mario turned and studied me. “You look so…” I didn’t finish the thought.
“You and your father…You remind me of a father and son I once knew.” Mario lost his smile as he turned his attention to his cup. I looked over at Pa who just nodded his head. I wanted to ask him what happened to his father, but for the time being, I decided it would be best to leave it alone.
After lunch, Mario stood and suggested we get started riding. We talked all afternoon. I didn’t pry into the bad things in his life, but instead shared with him about my past. I told him about my mother and her sickness. I told him about our wondering the country and finally finding a place to live. Then I shared with him about all the problems we ran into over the years. I even told him about Milly.
He mostly listened to me as I talked. At one point, he slowed his horse down and we rode slower across the range. “Mario, what did sort of business are you doing?”
“My…client hired me to do a job, Mark. It’s a very important job…but it’s a difficult job and I’m beginning to realize that…” His voice died. He turned to me. “You love your father very much, don’t you?” I nodded. “He’s the most important thing in your life? You’d die for each other and you…are a lot like friends. You tell each other everything. You want to be just like him when you grow up.” He was no longer talking to me, but talking to himself. I studied him as he spoke. “A father’s love…there’s nothing like it.”
Then Mario raced ahead. After that, neither of us talked much.
When we got back to the ranch Pa announced he had supper cooking. Mario and I worked together on the evening chores. I was amazed to see how happy doing just regular chores made him. But still, I could tell there was something bothering him.
At supper that night, Pa asked me about school. I remembered the grade I got back that morning for my history test, so I tried to ignore the question and kept eating. Finally, Pa sat down his fork and cleared his throat. “Well, I…I didn’t do too well on it, Pa.”
Pa glanced at Mario as he ate silently. “Exactly what did you make?”
“Well…” I looked down at my plate. “It was a…a…C…” I coughed as I added the “minus.”
Pa turned and looked at Mario. He smiled. “Well, we’ll talk about it later, son.”
Mario sat down his cup and leaned back in his chair as he watched us talk. There was a pained look on his face. I watched him stand up and walk to the window. I turned and looked at Pa who shook his head.
As Pa and I started clearing the table, Mario opened the door and walked outside. I could tell he was bothered about something and thought maybe he would open up to me. I watched him walk to the corral. As he leaned over it, I could tell he was deep in thought. I made the mistake of slowly and quietly approaching him. I watched as Mario saw the axe on the post and pulled it out.
When I was close enough, I leaned over and tapped him on his shoulder. He suddenly spun around and raised the axe as if to hit me with it. I gasped. Luckily, Mario realized it was me. "Never do that! Never sneak up behind me like that! Do you hear me? Never!" I was shocked at the tone in his voice. "You could have been killed!" He turned from me and leaned back over the fence. “Why did you come to me anyway?”
“I…I…I thought something was wrong,” I explained, suddenly feeling hurt by his reaction. “The way you were standing there and looking over there…I…” I stopped. “I’m sorry if I frightened ya.” I turned to leave, suddenly feeling like I had angered him. I had hoped we’d become friends.
“Wait!” Mario stopped me. He put a hand on my shoulder. I half-turned to look at him. “It is I who am sorry. Please forgive me, Mark.” I could tell he really wanted me to like him. "I was looking into the past, reliving that day," he explained suddenly.
"What day?" I asked quietly.
"That Day," he answered. There was such loneliness in his voice. “First it was the morning in the market place of our village. My father spoke to the other men who had gathered there. Spoke openly against the Society. He dared to say in public that they had the right to stand up for what was right for them…I can still see the dazzling fire in his eyes and the new born hope it kindled in the eyes of his listeners.” He spoke so sadly – as if it had happened just yesterday.
“Your Pa was a brave man,” I stated quietly. I had tears in my own eyes.
“He was a beautiful man,” Mario agreed. “That afternoon, my father and I were out in the field. It was early spring, just as it is now. My father sang as we walked. The sun was pleasant on our backs. Then the horsemen rode up. Not a word was said. The horsemen fired his gun. My father fell dead. The horseman turned and rode away. There was a hill on the edge of our field. Some strangers gave him that…My father loved that place the most. When we finished inspecting the fields, we would sit there…He would tell me stories. Being with him – listening to him…I was completely happy. He was such a wonderful man. I buried him there. And I sat out for revenge to find his murderer.”
I listened quietly with mixed emotions. That’s when I knew who my father and I reminded him of. I felt so bad for him. I remember sitting with my father as we talked…we still do that..it’s our special time. My Pa and I walk side by side in the fields and out on the range every day.
Mario had spoken in a little more than a whisper. When I finally spoke, I did the same. “Mario? Did you…find the man who killed your Pa?”
“I found him,” Mario answered.
“Did you kill him?”
“Many times!" He slammed the axe into the fence post. “Many times.”
I stared at Mario as he turned and walked to the barn. “Mario?” I called. He kept walking like a man with a purpose. “Mario?”
He suddenly froze in his spot. Slowly, he turned around. “Go into your father, Mark. Hug him. Talk to him.” Mario’s expression froze as a desperate look came over his face. “Because someday someone may come and…” He stopped, unable to finish what he was about to say. “I’m going to town. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I watched him walk into the barn. Then he closed the door. I stood and stared at the empty yard. So much had just been said. I suddenly understood what my father had been trying to tell me. Some things were better off buried…better off now knowing. His words spooked me.
Slowly, I made my way back to the porch. I slowly lowered myself to the porch step and stared at the corral where Mario and I had talked. I watched the barn door open and close. Mario didn’t even turn as he raced his horse out of the yard. “Where’s he going, son?” I didn’t even hear Pa’s question. I was replaying Mario’s words over and over. I felt a hand on my shoulder and jumped. Pa laughed nervously as I stared, frightened, into his eyes. “Mark, what’s wrong, boy?”
I turned from him and shook my head as I stared down the road. “N…Nothing,” I answered.
Pa sat down beside me. “Ohhhhhh….” He paused. I could feel his stare. “It doesn’t look like nothing to me.”
“Mario went to town,” I stated quietly in a shaky voice.
“So?” Pa’s voice held a silent question.
I shrugged. “I was just letting you know.”
I continued to stare silently at the barn. “Mark?” Pa’s voice was stern. I turned and looked at him. “What is it, son?” I shook my head. “That’s not what your face says.”
I averted my eyes from him as I remembered again what Mario had just said. “He told me what happened to his father.” I swallowed as my voice shook. “His father was…a lot like you it seems. He and his Pa were close like you and me. They would just sit and talk. They loved each other.” I turned my head back to look into Pa’s concerned eyes. “Like you would have done, he…spoke against the society in their market place. Then he went home.” I turned my head away and quickly wiped my eye before a tear could escape. “They came to him while they were working in the fields and…and..” I stopped.
“Killed his father.” I nodded.
I nodded. “Yes sir,” I whispered.
Pa laid a hand on my shoulder. “I’m…sorry, son.”
“He’s in so much pain, Pa. I don’t think I could…” I swallowed my words.
Pa turned my face to look at him. He gave me a sad smile. “You don’t have to, Mark. I’m here.”
“Yes, but suppose that…” Pa gently shook his head. I nodded in understanding.
Pa stood and reached down to help me up. I smiled as I took his hand. I stood and looked up at my father. “I…I love ya.” Pa nodded and winked at me. Then he put an arm around my shoulder and hugged me to him as we walked inside.
After the dishes were done, Pa and I sat in our chairs by the fire. He was spending time reading his Bible, and told me I needed to do the same. It was something we often did together in the evenings. As I got older, I was beginning to understand he was teaching me how to live like a man – close to the Good Book, seeking it’s guidance instead of relying on my own tormented thoughts like Mario did.
But as I sat there reading my Bible, I remembered another part of the conversation. It still bothered me that Mario had just left.
“There’s nothing mysterious about a man wanting to be by himself for a bit, son.” Pa didn’t even look up from his Bible as he spoke.
“Yeah. But that was a couple hours ago.” Pa simply told me to go back to my reading. Mario would be back when he was ready. I knew Pa was silently telling me not to dwell on the conversation.
“Many times,” I muttered as I remembered the conversation from earlier.
“Maybe you misunderstood,” Pa stated after I told him what Mario had said.
“No. I heard him clear, Pa,” I argued. “Many times, he said. What could that mean?”
“Well, it could mean he’s lived it over and over again. A thing like that’s not easy to forget.”
That’s all Pa said. His words didn’t comfort me. I still felt strange…Like there was something…I decided to go to bed as I tried to figure it out.
But I tossed and turned for a long time before I finally fell to sleep. I dreamed something strange. I dreamed Pa and I were working in the fields when Mario rode up on his white horse and shot my father. We locked eyes as his gun continued to smoke from the shot. We locked eyes and he became me and I became him.
I lifted from my bed with a gasp. Sweat was on my face. I looked over at Pa and suddenly worried that something had happened. I got out of bed and walked over to where he lay sleeping. Then I heard him snore.
I smiled and shook my head. “Yep, he’s okay!” I muttered as I hurried back over to my bed and went to sleep.
The next morning, Pa had to again threaten me in order to get me up. After he announced I was going to bed a whole hour earlier that night, I forced myself up.
Mario didn’t talk much at breakfast. I tried to prod him into a conversation, but Pa kicked me under the table and shook his head. We ate in silence.
Then as I was getting ready to walk out the door, Mario spoke. “Mark?”
I slowly turned back to him. His voice sounded so lost. “Yes?”
“You’ll be home for lunch?” I saw a look in his eye. It almost looked like he was…was warning me about something…
I cocked my head to one side and studied him. Slowly, I nodded my head. “I’ll be here.” I looked toward Pa. “School’s letting out at noon today. Nels is re-shoeing Blue Boy tonight. I’ll ride with Freddie to his house then walk the rest of the way. I should only be a half hour late or so. Then I’ll pick Blue Boy up after we have supper at the hotel tonight.”
Pa of course knew all this because it’s what he had told me earlier today. I was repeating it for Mario’s benefit. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt anxious about leaving. I again turned toward the door. “Mark?” Again, I turned and looked at him. “Uh…none of this is your fault. Never take your father for granted. Never!”
What a strange thing for him to say! I nodded, then hurried out the door.
All morning his words tugged in the corner of my mind. I didn’t hear much of what Mr. Griswald was saying because I kept going back to the conversations Mario and I had over the last couple of days. I felt anxious all morning, as if I needed to get home. I felt Pa wasn’t safe. When noon arrived, I felt even more anxious. Freddie stopped to talk to some of our school friends. “I need to get home!” I insisted.
“Let’s play some ball first, Mark,” Freddie suggested.
I shook my head. “No. I have to get home.” Freddie glared at me. “NOW!”
Freddie grumbled as we mounted his horse, but I paid him no mind. “None of this is your fault.” Those words played over and over in my head. My heart beat faster as we got closer to Freddie’s house. “Many times…many times..many times…” Those words echoed in my mind too. I couldn’t speak or even pay attention to what Freddie was saying as we rode for home.
The minute Freddie pulled into his yard, I jumped off his horse and took off for the ranch as fast as my legs would carry me. “Hey Mark, you forgot your books!” But I didn’t stop running.
Something told me to step lightly. As I walked around the corner of the barn, I froze in my steps. Mario was pointing a gun at my father. He was planning on killing him! My heart beat hard and my mind raced. How could Mario…How could he…
I saw Pa’s rifle. I knew what I had to do and it was painful. My hand was shaking as I picked up Pa’s rifle. I heard Mario cock the hammer of his gun. “PA!” I screamed as I threw him the rifle. In one swift move, Pa turned grabbed the rifle, then turned and fired one shot at Mario.
He started to fall very, very slowly. But as he fell, I saw something on his face. It was almost like…relief or happiness…and he fell to the ground. Mario was dead.
Pa slowly walked over to me as I stared in horror at what had just happened. My eyes grew moist as I stared at him.
So many questions – but very few answers.
Pa laid a hand on my shoulder as my eyes grew moist. Neither of us spoke as he looked down at me.
Mario was dead…My friend was dead…
I felt numb inside as I looked down at his body. I squeezed my eyes shut, but tears still formed and squeezed from my eyes. Pa slowly walked over and bent down next to him. He picked the gun up. “Go on inside, Mark,” Pa said quietly. His own voice was tormented. I just stood there, frozen. “Mark, I said go on inside!” His voice was a little more firm.
I slowly walked over to where Mario laid. I bent down and touched his cheek still warm to the touch. I was in shock at what had just happened here. “He said…” I swallowed as tears fell from my eyes. I looked up at Pa. “He said…none of this was my fault.” I narrowed my eyes as I tried to understand.
“Mario…” Pa swallowed. “He was a professional killer, son. He was hired by a man I shot many years ago, to kill me. Mario’s reason for being here…was to kill me.”
I slowly lifted my head from Mario’s body to look into Pa’s eyes. He saw my tears. His eyes suddenly moistened. He laid a hand on my shoulder and nodded. Slowly, he stood up. “After you say goodbye, go inside.”
I watched Pa walk to the shed to get a shovel. He was going to bury our friend. I lowered my head back down to him and just sat there quietly. I tried to make sense of what had happened, but couldn’t. I was so confused. I knew this is one of those times that didn’t have answers. I gently sat a hand on Mario’s shoulder and bowed my head in silence. Then I slowly stood. Without a word, I walked into the house and closed the door.
I made my way to my room and threw myself down on my bed and wept. I cried until I was empty, then I fell to sleep.
When I woke up, it was dark. Pa was sitting beside my bed, his Bible open. The lantern was dimly lit. I sat up in bed and looked at him. “I’m…sorry.” Pa shook his head, but said nothing. “Is he…”
Pa nodded. “He’s buried on the hill out on the range.” I smiled sadly as my eyes again filled with tears. “You hungry?”
I nodded. “But…I couldn’t eat even if I wanted.” Pa nodded in understanding. “Thank you…” Pa smiled. “For sitting with me, I mean.” Pa nodded. “I’m so…confused.” I lowered my head. “I don’t suppose you have the answers I need.” Pa shook his head.
In time, we stood and walked out onto the porch. So much thinking had occurred out on these steps and tonight was no different. I looked out over the range thinking and remembering. Finally, Pa voiced the question. "What are you thinking about son?"
"All along Mario had planned to kill you." I still couldn’t quite believe it.
"Something's happened to change his plans," Pa suggested. I wondered what he meant. "Well…in that split moment he found himself and his father as you and me," Pa said. That’s what I had figured out already. Hearing Pa voice it out loud made me understand that much more.
"When you tossed me that rifle. Mark, he could have easily fired, he was an expert, a professional. He had me son.....but he didn't squeeze the trigger."
"Then he wanted to die?"
"I think in that one moment he realized he no longer had anything to live for....he found a way of going home Mark...for good!"
"You know Pa...it may sound kinda strange but...I think I know how he felt." Because I too had a father, and I wondered just what I would do were I to see him suddenly gunned down in front of my eyes…
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Old Man Running
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
Requiem at Mission Springs
around The McCain Ranch