I reckon my Pa’s had that rifle of his for as long as I can remember. I’m sure he had it long before I was born, though Pa really didn’t tell me when he got it. I asked him about it once when I was seven years old, and the story behind the making of it must be awfully painful because his eyes got this really far-away look in them and he looked like it hurt to think about, so I never asked him about it again. I always figured that it was one of those painful events from his past that he wanted to stay buried, but one day, the whole entire thing came bubbling out.
But first I must tell you about a dark, dark time in my life when I hated the mere sight of the rifle that had been formed out of a dark time in my father’s life. You see, to sum this part up in a nut shell, I allowed mere words out of someone’s mouth to dictate a decision that I should have never made. My Pa had warned me time and time again that someday my desire to make people like me and him would warp my judgment. I was now standing face-to-face with that time.
It was just a simple spout against my Pa that made me reach for that rifle and hand it to the boy. It wasn’t my rifle he wanted to see – it was my father’s. Why did I have to prove to him that my father DID own this magnificent rifle that was not a pride to him, but a possession that deserved respect? Not even I was supposed to touch it unless given permission. But this day…this day…he said Pa’s rifle wasn’t anything special, but before that, he called me Gun Shy. And those two words made me sputter, “Well, you just get set to put your money where your mouth is!’
I allowed two words…those two words…to penetrate my feelings so deeply that I reached for my father’s rifle and threw it to a mere sixteen year old kid – a cousin of one of my school friends – and that was a rash decision made in some sort of stupid, senseless anger that would haunt me for the rest of my life.
Instantly, I regretted it, but it was too late. The kid was curious, we struggled, the gun went off, and Charlie fell to the ground.
He wasn’t moving. He was lying very still. And I think my heart quit beating.
Pa started yelling at me, but to tell the truth, I didn’t hear a word he said. My mind was reeling as I stared at my school friend lying on the ground. He wasn’t moving. It’s like he was…
“This boy’s dead!” Pa’s words were harsh and accusing as he stared hard at me. He held the boy’s lifeless body in front of me as if to say, “Just look what you did!”
I suddenly felt weak and very sick to my stomach. I could no longer stand. I fell on my knees and covered my face with my hands. “There’s no time for that now, boy!” Pa shouted angrily. “Go hitch up the wagon so we can go into town.”
I lifted my head, still on my knees and watched as Pa put my friend’s body into the back of the wagon. The cousin – the one who did the shooting – started to bolt, but Pa grabbed him by the arm. He walked over to me and grabbed me by the arm. He roughly forced me to my feet. “You’re both going in to see the Marshal and explain to him why Charlie died!” Pa stared at me hard, but I didn’t care. My heart was sick…weakened…”Now, both of you go hitch up the team NOW!”
The voice that spoke wasn’t that of my father. It was the voice of the Rifleman yelling at an outlaw I hated that voice as it was directed at me I knew in that instance I was being condemned, and I was being treated like any other man who was involved in a killing – I was being taken into town to speak with the Marshal.
“Gun shy…” Those words kept echoing in my head over and over and over as I sat beside my father up on the buckboard. I turned and saw Fred with an ashen face as he sat in the back of the wagon. There was a strange, eerie, ugly silence in the air as Pa hastened the team down the road. My mouth was dry and my heart was barely pumping.
But at least it was still beating. I turned my head sideways a bit and saw the covered body of my friend. I closed my eyes as my stomach clinched up into knots. Then I heaved over the side of the wagon. I buried my face in my hands and wept.
Pa stayed silent.
I wept until we rode into town. Pa jumped down, but I stayed frozen in my seat on top of the buckboard. I didn’t move as I heard the door to Micah’s office open. “Lucas Boy, what-“ Micah’s voice died as Pa uncovered the body I immediately turned my head back around and faced the front as my stomach once again started churning. “What happened?”
Pa’s voice was cold and angry. “I think these two boys have some explaining to do, Micah.”
“Well, let’s go inside.” A crowd gathered around the wagon and murmurings began I hung my head as I heard the chatting. “Someone take this boy down to the undertaker’s! Break it up! This ain’t a midway, folks! Give these boys some privacy!” Micah ordered the crowd. “Go on home, now! This ain’t none of your affair!” Micah turned back toward Pa. “Someone will have to tell his parents.”
I gasped in horror and suddenly felt very ill again. His parents had no idea. They would hate me! They would…
“Come on, Mark.” Pa’s voice was so flat and cold. I hated hearing it like that. I was frozen in the seat. “No, I can’t!” I declared.
“You can! And you will!” Pa ordered as He reached up and grabbed my arm. He practically pulled me from the wagon seat and pulled me inside the office. I flinched at the grip he had on my arm. He dragged me to the chair in front of Micah’s desk and pushed me to sit down hard. I turned and looked at Fred, but I stayed silent.
I heard the tapping of a pencil on the desk. Micah’s face held an impatient stare as he tapped the pencil. I stared at it as the room stayed silent. “I’m waiting.”
I again turned and looked at Fred. “Who shot him?” Micah asked.
Some devious force suddenly exploded in me. I didn’t want to be blamed for this in any way! I couldn’t take the blame! “He did!” I jabbed a finger toward Fred. I heard the intake of Pa’s breath and closed my eyes. “He was holding Pa’s rifle and…” I regreted my sehlfish action.
Pa slowly walked up beside my chair. His arms were crossed. His eyes were flaming red. As he spoke, he uncrossed his arms, leaned forward and set his hands down on the arms of the chair, “Am I to understand correctly, Mark, that he came into my home and took my rifle from its holder by the door?” Pa got right in my face as he yelled very, very loud. “Is that what you are telling me?”
I closed my eyes in regret. I turned my head away as those angry eyes bored into me. I felt very, very small with this big, angry man towering over me. “N…No.”
“Or did you give him the rifle? Is that how it happened? I’m waiting for an answer!” Pa yelled again. I could feel his hot breath on my face. It felt like it was slapping me over and over and over.
Angry, hot, bitter tears popped into my eyes, but I knew Pa didn’t want to see them. “Pa,” I said in a voice that was too quiet. “Pa, I’d do anything…ANYTHING…to take back what happened.”
“But you can’t!” Pa screamed. “He’s dead! Charlie is dead!”
“Lucas!” I heard Micah say. “Lucas, lay off!”
Pa continued stooped over me right in my face though. “So he asked to see my rifle and you gave it to him? Just like that?” Pa snapped his fingers as he yelled.
Micah leapt from his chair. “Lucas!” He grabbed Pa and pulled him away from me. Micah was yelling at Pa now. “I said lay off!”
“Micah, my son caused a boy’s death and you want me to LAY OFF?????” Pa shouted. Everyone in town could hear, I’m sure.
I heard Micah sigh. Then he dragged Pa toward the door. “You wait outside, Lucas! That’s an order!” I heard the door slam as he shoved Pa out the door. I jumped a foot out of my chair. Micah slowly walked back over to us. He sat down on his desk and folded his arms. “Okay…I’ll start with you, Mark. Tell me what happened.”
I opened my mouth, but words wouldn’t come out. I felt sickened by what had happened. “Well, speak up!” Micah ordered.
I suddenly saw the rifle – Pa’s rifle – lying on Micah’s desk. Something snapped. I jumped up and pointed to it. “THAT shot Charlie! My father’s rifle’s what done it!”
Micah turned and looked at the rifle. He picked it up and looked at it. “Your father’s rifle is just a rifle.”
Micah sat it down then turned to Fred. “What’s your name, boy?”
“How did you come to be at the McCain house?” Micah asked.
“I’m…” Fred cleared his throat. “I’m Charlie’s cousin.”
“And did you shoot this rifle?” Micah asked.
“I just…Just wanted to see it.” Fred looked up at Micah. “I just…wanted to hold it. We struggled and it went off.”
“Is that it?” Micah turned to me. “Was there a struggle?”
I just stared at the rifle. I couldn’t answer.
“Was there a struggle?” Micah’s voice rose.
“Yes sir,” I whispered. “I tried to get the rifle back and it went off. The rifle shot Charlie.”
I couldn’t think. My mind was spinning in a thousand directions. I prayed this was just some horrible nightmare and at any moment, I would wake up and find it was all over. I prayed that I would be able to go back to my normal life – that two parents would be grieving because of my father’s rifle.
“Micah banged his fist on the desk, causing me to focus on his words. “I’m declaring this an accidental shooting due to malicious behavior.” He turned and looked at me I saw the disappointment in his eyes. “Mark, I hope you realize that I have to go tell the parents that their child is dead because, because of some school-boy fighting.” I hung my head. “Mark?” I looked up. “Mark, you know better. I’m very disappointed in you.”
I closed my eyes in shame. I heard Micah walk out the door and heard it slam behind me. The room was suddenly very quiet, but outside, I could hear Micah and Pa yelling at each other. I couldn’t make out everything that was said, but I heard Pa! “What business is it of yours to get involved when I’m disciplining my son, Micah?” Pa yelled.
“It IS my business!” I heard Micah’s angry reply. “This is a matter for the law, Lucas! Isn’t that why you brought them here?”
“The Law…” I heard Pa do some more yelling. Finally, the voices got quieter.
Then Micah exploded. “Your going to WHAT???????”
“It’s final, Micah! The boy’s got to learn a lesson!”
“Don’t you think he has?” I heard Micah yell.
“I can’t let this go at that, Micah, and you know it!”
Micah said a couple words I can’t repeat. Fred and I looked at each other and Fred shrugged “Are you finished with him, Micah?”
Micah opened the door. “I’m finished with him,” he nodded his head.
Pa walked in then “Come on, boys.” Pa’s voice was still cold.
I turned my head toward him but didn’t move from my chair. “We going home?” I asked quietly.
“No.” Pa walked towards me. “We’re going to the Tanner Ranch.”
I shot my head towards him again. Then I jumped out of my chair and ran across the room. “No!” I cried. “No!”
“You’re going, Mark!” Pa ordered.
“No!” I ran over to Micah. “You can lock me up…Do anything! I can’t face his folks and see this! I can’t…”
“You will take responsibility for your actions, Mark!” Pa declared in an angry voice.
“I didn’t do anything! It was that rifle – your rifle! Your rifle did it!” I cried. I knew I was acting like a six year old who was about to get a whipping for something, but right now, I was more afraid to face the parents of my friend. I’d rather die than face them!
Pa came and grabbed my arm. “You’re going and that’s final!”
Fear gripped every inch of my body as Pa started dragging me toward the door. I stiffened myself up, making it harder for him to drag me. “I can’t!” I cried out. “No, I just can’t face them! I can’t!”
“You will be silent!” Pa’s voice boomed. I saw a look in Pa’s eyes I never wanted to see again – not as long as I lived. I looked toward the door and saw people on the street staring in. Pa kept a firm grip on my arm. “Now…” Pa sighed. “If I have to, I’ll whip you. Don’t make me do that, Mark.” I lowered my head. “You are 14 years old. That’s old enough to understand that when you make a mistake, you face up to it.”
But that’s just it. It was a mistake, an accident… I already told Pa I’d do anything to take it back. My mind whirled as I thought back on what had happened.
Pa led me out the door and into the wagon. Fred climbed onto the back. He hardly said a word. He looked so guilty. I felt something come over me. I stared down at Pa’s rifle and suddenly hated it! I’d always been proud of the rifle and what it stood for – but today I despised ever setting eyes on it. I wanted to throw it into a fire and burn it.
My heart stopped as the wagon pulled into the yard. It stopped right in front of the ranch house. I saw Mr. Tanner walk out. He stood on the porch. I could tell from the look on his face that he knew something was wrong. “Fred, where’s Charlie?” He asked as he stepped off the porch.
“Let’s go inside, Steve,” Pa said quietly. Then the look Pa gave me told me I had best get down from the wagon and, NOW.
Mrs. Tanner came out then. “Steve?” She stopped when she saw our faces. “Something’s wrong. I knew it! I sensed…” She ran to Fred. “Where is he? Where’s Charlie?” Fred couldn’t answer. I felt a lump growing in my throat. The look on her face suddenly turned to pure horror. At that moment, I think she knew. She dropped the plate in her hand and ran to Pa She clung to his. “Where’s my son?” She screamed. Her voice became desperate. “Where is he?”
Pa lifted his eyes and looked at Mr. Tanner. “Pam…” Pa swallowed.
I stood and watched Mr. Tanner slowly walk over to Pa. “Lucas? Where’s my son?” Mr. Tanner’s voice broke. He stared at me hard. “Mark?”
I turned and looked at Pa. “Steve…” Pa moved his lips, but nothing came out. Finally, he grabbed Mrs. Tanner by the shoulders “I’m afraid there’s been a…an accident.”
“No!” She threw her hands to her mouth. “NO!” She screamed. “No! No! No!” She started banging her fists on my Pa’s chest. Her eyes filled with tears and she cried out loud. “I want my baby! I want my son!” She screamed. “Where is he?”
I could hardly see through my own tears. I watched as Mr. Tanner grabbed his wife by her shoulders and dragged her away. “Is he…” he asked in a broken voice. I saw Pa nod his head.
“Dead? My baby’s…dead?” She collapsed. I watched Mr. Tanner catch her in his arms. They clung to each other and cried together for the loss of their son.
I started backing away from the scene. I shook my head. I couldn’t stand anymore. “No…” I whispered. “No…”
“I’m sorry!” Fred screamed out then. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean ta…I didn’t mean…” He turned and ran away.
I wanted to run away too, but my feet wouldn’t move. They were plastered to the ground. “The boys…” Pa swallowed as he stared at Mr. Tanner. “They…they struggled with my rifle and it went off.” Pa hung his head. “I’m…very…very sorry.”
Mr. Tanner looked towards where Fred was running. Then he looked at me. Then he looked at Pa. “Let’s go inside, Pam.”
Pam started inside. She turned and glared at us. I watched as anger etched her face. “YOU….YOU all get off our property! And don’t you EVER…EVER come back!”
I watched as the door slammed behind them. I heard her screams as she continued to accept the truth. “Let’s go, son.”
I started toward the wagon, but stopped and turned back toward the house. “NOOOOOOO!!!!” I suddenly heard from inside as the truth hit her right in the gut. I stared in horror at the closed door. “Oh, GOD, NOOOOO!!!!”
“Mark?” I heard Pa’s voice, but I couldn’t turn toward it “Let’s go, son. We’re invading their privacy.” I felt Pa’s hands on my shoulders as he turned me around. My legs gave way and I fell to the ground. Pa bent down and grabbed me by my arm. He held me up as we walked toward the wagon
I stopped at the back and stared at the board. I ran a hand across the spot where some of Charlie’s blood still lay. “Oh Pa!” I gasped “It’s a nightmare! Please..tell me it is!”
“I can’t do that, son. I wish I could.” Pa’s voice broke.
I suddenly whirled around. I clinched my fists to my side. “Why didn’t you tell them everything?” I asked. “Why didn’t you tell them exactly what happened? They…they hate you now!” I yelled out in frustration.
Pa’s voice stayed calm. “They aren’t ready to hear the details yet, son. They have to bury their son. When they want to know who and why, they’ll seek me out.” Pa led me toward the wagon.
I stopped. “Will you tell them?”
“That my own son was behind their son’s death?” Pa’s words were bitter. There was that look in Pa’s eyes again. “Yes I will…if they ask.”
I bolted around. “I didn’t cause it! It was your rifle!” I screamed. “Don’t you see? It was your rifle!”
Pa stared at me I saw the anger in his eyes I felt rejected…”Don’t you see that, Pa? Don’t you see? Don’t…Don’t…” I suddenly turned and ran off as fast as I could.
“Mark! Mark!” Pa hollered, but I paid him no mind. I ran as hard and as fast as my legs would carry me. I didn’t look back. And I didn’t stop until I got home. I sat near the woodpile and buried my head in my arms as I shook with sobs.
I heard the wagon pull into the yard, but I didn’t move. I just kept my head buried in my arms. I heard Pa jump from the wagon. I heard his footsteps as he walked across the dirt, but still…”Mark?”
I lifted my head slowly. Pa’s feet were right in front of me. I suddenly felt like that little six year old boy who was about to get into trouble as I lifted my head up higher and higher. No words were said for a long time as we stared into each other’s eyes. I could see the pain in anguish in Pa’s eyes.
Neither of us moved. Finally, Pa turned away. He didn’t look at me when he finally spoke.
“You’ve lost your gun, Mark. For a long, long time.”
“I don’t care!” I screamed. “I HATE guns! They kill people!” I shouted.
Pa suddenly bent over and grabbed me roughly by the arm. He pulled me to my feet in one swift swoop. His angry eyes stared into mine. Then he let go of my arm. “I think…” Pa sighed. “I think you should go to the barn and wait for me.” I heard pain in his voice, as if what he was going to do was going to be very hard for me. “I think we both need a few minutes alone to talk with God.”
I heard it in Pa’s voice. I hated what I heard. I’d disappointed him a few times, but nothing like this. Never had I seen him more angry…more hurt…more disappointed. I watched him turn and walk to the house. He paused at the porch and turned to look at me. The look he gave me sent cold chills down my spine. I turned and slowly walked into the barn. I closed the door then climbed up into the hayloft.
But I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t do anything but remember my words from earlier. “You just get ready to put your money where your mouth is…where your mouth is…mouth is…mouth is…” My own words echoed through the barn. My own words had come back to haunt me.
I put my hands to my ears and shook my head as tears again filled my eyes. “Give me it! Give me it!” I heard my pleadful voice. Then I heard the one single shot as it echoed through in my head.
Then there was silence…deadly silence…In that instance, the horses stopped their chewing. The bugs that came out at night had started their music, but suddenly even they were quiet.
I sat in the hayloft for a long, long time. My stomach was growling and I was growing tired. Finally, I laid down and went to sleep. As I slept, faces swirled around in my brain with voices. The voices didn’t fit the faces. The words made no sense. Pa…Micah…Lou…Charlie…Fred…Mr. and Mrs. Tanner…They were all pointing at me, condemning me to die. I shouted and begged for them to not blame me, but they pointed fingers at me and laughed evilly, calling me a wicked boy. A rope suddenly began swinging in front of me, then a rifle…No, not A rifle – THE rifle.
I awoke with a start. Sweat poured from my forehead as I took in gasps of air. That’s when I realized it was morning. I slowly sat up. A blanket had been placed over me. I flung it off and stood to my feet. I looked out the Hayloft window and saw Pa slopping the hogs. He looked up, after hearing one of the boards in the hayloft creak, and our eyes met.
It was the same cold stare from last night. I couldn’t stand it. I quickly turned away and sat down. I heard the barn door open and close. I heard Pa feeding the horses down below. “Hey there, Blue Boy!” Pa greeted warmly. “Hey there, Razor.” I wondered if I was deserving of a greeting this morning. I didn’t have to wait long for that answer.
Pa stepped up the ladder. He froze at the top as his eyes locked on mine. I quickly turned away, not being able to look into those eyes. “Good morning, Mark.” But it wasn’t a friendly greeting as he said the words. They were harsh and cold…I stayed silent as he crawled over to me and sat down beside me, his back against the wall and our shoulders touching.
“By the time I was able to put the Bible down last night, you’d fallen asleep. Under the circumstances, I thought it best to leave you here.”
I couldn’t look at him. “Under the circumstances…” I mumbled bitterly. “You…You hate me.”
“I hate what you did, son.” Pa stated calmly. “I don’t hate you. I could never…” Pa closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. “I just…I just…I just don’t understand!” His voice grew angry again. “What could have possibly gotten in your head to…to do such a STUPID thing?”
“It just went off, Pa,” I said quietly. “It just went off. Fred…”
“Don’t you do that, son!” Pa shouted. “Just…Just don’t!” He demanded angrily.
“Don’t what?” I asked quietly.
“Don’t shift the blame! Mark McCain had the power to say no to the request to see the rifle. Mark McCain gave the boy the rifle. And Mark McCain struggled for it. How do you know that…” Pa closed his eyes and sighed. “How do you know your finger didn’t pull the trigger?” I heard the pain in his voice. It was almost like…like he had felt his own finger on that trigger.
But the mere thought of what Pa was insinuating was too much for me to handle. “No!” I cried as I shook my head. “It wasn’t me!”
“Are you sure?” Pa asked. His voice cracked. Didn’t he have faith in me? Didn’t he believe in his own son?
“It wasn’t me! It was your…” I stopped myself. “It wasn’t me.”
“You know I have to punish you, son.” Pa shifted so he could look at me. “It wouldn’t be right to let you get off without punishment.”
“No need, Pa. I promise you I’ll never go near your rifle…or any rifle again…Not as long as I live!” I screamed these words at Pa.
Pa closed his eyes. “Don’t you DARE raise your voice to me like that again!” Pa waited for me to say something, but I stayed silent. “You hear me, boy?”
“Yes sir,” I whispered. “Loud and clear.” Those last three words were sarcastic, because all Pa had been doing since this whole thing started was yell at me. He never yelled at me for this long before.
“I have mush on the stove. You go on inside and eat. And then…” Pa started.
“I’m not hungry!” I sputtered out.
Pa turned and looked at me. He closed his eyes and nodded. “Alright, son. Have it your way. But you’re going to be sorry you refused breakfast. …” He paused, waiting for me to change my mind but I was being stubborn and I refused breakfast. “Alright. Then you have a big job to do.” Pa turned and looked at me. “Mark?” I turned and looked at him. “I told Toomey you’d be the grave digger.”
I sucked in my breath. I slowly shook my head from side to side. The punishment was too much! I didn’t understand why he felt he HAD to punish me. Didn’t he know I’d be punishing myself for the rest of my life? “Why are you doing this to me?” I cried out.
“Why am I…” I did’t think it was possible for Pa to look more angry, but he did. He was so angry, in fact, that he couldn’t speak. He quickly crawled to the ladder. “It’ll take all day. I told Toomey you’d be there by 9:00 so you best get started.”
“I can’t, Pa! I can’t…dig his grave!” The mere thought of it made my mouth go dry and gave me the shakes all over again. “It’s too much! The punishment is just too great, Pa!”
“Mark, let’s get one thing straight. It’s because of you that a grave is being dug in the first place. It’s because of you that Charlie’s parents are mourning the loss of their one and only son.”
I jabbed a finger toward the house. “It’s because of that gun in there in the house, Pa! That’s why Charlie’s dead, that’s why!” I screamed.
The barn grew very quiet as Pa stared at me. I think he was beginning to realize where I was putting the blame and he didn’t like it. “Mark!” Pa started to yell some more. But he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It didn’t help any. “You’ll dig the grave, Mark!” Pa yelled right back. “You’ll do it…And every shovel-full of dirt that you take from that hole, remember why it’s being removed – because a thirteen year old boy was shot and killed.”
Then I did something I’d never really done before. I stood to my knees and planted my hands on my hips. Then I stuck out my chin. “And if I refuse?”
Instantly, I knew that was a mistake. Pa crawled back over to me and got in my face. He grabbed my arm harshly and stared hard into my eyes. “You WON’T refuse.” The voice he used was ugly. “Because…if you do…you will force me to take extreme measures – measures I’ve been able to avoid up to this point. And you don’t want me to start it now!” Then he turned from me as the harshness of his words echoed in my head.
I plopped down into the hay and watched him disappear down the ladder. Then I heard the barn door open and close. Then he was gone.
I refused to eat. Eating was the farthest thing from my mind. I stayed in the barn until 8:30. Then when Pa came back into the barn and called my name, I came down. He handed me a shovel then turned and quickly walked back into the house.
He didn’t even say goodbye. Not a word was said. And even worse…he never turned back.
I looked toward the barn and knew Pa had let Blue Boy and Razor out to pastuoe just a little while ago. I looked up at the sky as the hot sun rose higher. Then I looked to the road and slowly started walking out of the yard.
I knew that was it. I knew I was expected to walk the two miles to the grave yard. I’m sure that was part of my punishment because it would cause me to think. I had to walk right by the Tanner ranch, and I wasn’t looking forward to that. I stopped and stared down the lane toward their home. Charlie wasn’t in the yard doing chores like he usually was. There was a sound and smell of death as I stared down at the quiet, still house.
Then the door opened and Mrs. Tanner stepped out onto the porch. She crossed her arms and looked at me. The look wasn’t angry, yet it wasn’t pleasant either. It was just cold…sort of like my father’s.
I continued on my journey until I got to the graveyard. Mr. Toomey was there. He had marked off the hole I was to dig. He told me to dig it four feet deep. He told me the funeral was in the morning. I stood there and looked around at all the other graves in the graveyard. How many times had I been here and felt sorry for the person that had died – but nothing…nothing like this.
“You best get started,” Toomey stated. “Your father said you were to do this all on your own.” I heard it in Mr. Toomey’s voice as well – it was that “I’m-ashamed-of-you” voice.
“He…told you what happened?” I asked.
Mr. Toomey nodded. “I’m sorry to say he did, Mark. I must say I was quite surprised.”
“Does Freddie know?” I asked then.
“He does,” Mr. Toomey answered simply.
“I bet he hates me too,” I mumbled as I stared down at the ground.
Mr. Toomey put a tense hand on my shoulder. “He doesn’t hate you, but…It’s going to take him a while to accept it…You know?” I nodded. I didn’t understand why I was being blamed so harshly. I just didn’t understand it at all. I watched as Mr. Toomey left the graveyard, then I turned around and started digging.
Now, I wasn’t one who thought graveyards were haunted or anything, but that day it was. Every time I dug, I saw Charlie’s life or remembered a time he’d played some fool trick on me. I remembered how proud his folks were to have him since it had taken years and years before he came along.
And now they had no child.
I continued digging as the hot sun burned down on me. Each time I thrust the shovel into the dirt, I thought on all the men my Pa’s rifle had killed. Each man was someone’s son. Each man was probably someone’s brother. Each man could have been someone’s father. Each time I thrust the shovel into the dirt my hatred for that rifle grew. I wiped the sweat from my forehead then dug some more. I became more and more angry…more and more helpless…I began feeling a hatred deep inside me – something I couldn’t explain.
It was mid afternoon when Pa showed up. He stepped down from Razor and walked up to me and held out the canteen for me to take a long drink from. I climbed from the hole I was digging and sat down under a shade tree. “You’re half-way there, son,” Pa stated as he handed me a sandwich.
“Yeah.” I sighed. “I…I just can’t believe he’s gone.” I shook my head as I took the sandwich and dropped it beside me. “One second he was talking and laughing…the next he was…” I turned and looked up at Pa. For a moment, his eyes had turned soft and gentle for the first time since it happened. “I just can’t believe this really happened.”
“I’m sorry it did, Mark. I really am.” Pa looked out over the graveyard. “When we walk through the Valley’s of the Shadow of death…” He turned back to me. “Have you asked Him for forgiveness?” He pointed upwards.
I turned from Pa then. I stood up. “Well, I best get back to work.” Then I walked away.
“Mark,” Pa walked up to me. “It’s my duty not only as your father, but as a Christian man to tell you that…you are shifting the blame onto everybody except where it rightfully belongs.”
I stared at Pa. “I said I best get back to work. I have a lot of work to still do.” I started back towards the grave. I stopped and lifted my head before I jumped back into the hole..
Pa didn’t say another word. He just turned and got back in the saddle and rode away. In between stomping on the shovel and heaving the dirt, I watched him leave, then I continued digging.
It was getting dark as I continued digging. I looked up out of the hole to see someone coming down the road with a lantern in his hand. The sun was peeking from behind the mountain, but it would soon disappear all together. “Hello, Mark.”
I looked up to see Mr. Toomey there. Freddie was with him. “Hi.”
Mr. Toomey bent down next to the grave. “I think that’s good, Mark.” He took the shove from me and extended his hand to help me climb out of the hole. “We just came from the Tanner Ranch.”
I sat down beside the tree where I had sat earlier in the day. Freddie hardly even looked at me. Mr. Toomey knelt down and held out some bread to me. “Mrs. Tanner made it today. She said it was easier to keep busy.”
I stared at the bread, but turned away. “No.” I shook my head.
“She knows you’ve been down here digging the grave all day, Mark. She…knows it was an accident.”
I snickered. “Accident… Yeah!”
“Mark…” Mr. Toomey started.
“Alright, you offered your sympathy and nourishment. Now you can…” I quickly turned away.
Mr. Toomey cleared his throat as he excused my rudeness. “Your Pa stopped by the Tanner’s this afternoon while we were there. They weren’t accepting of him at first, but your father convinced them to listen to him.” Mr. Toomey held the bread out to me again, and again I shook my head. “He said he had dropped off a sandwich for your lunch and told them what you were doing. They asked how it happened.”
Mr. Toomey grew quiet. “And Pa told them I killed their son, didn’t he?” I couldn’t keep the hurt from my voice. Everyone was blaming me.
“In spite of what you think of your father at the moment, Mark, I think he’s doing the right thing. And the sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be!” Mr. Toomey declared. ”Your Pa told them there was a struggle, that you had let Fred see the rifle. But Fred was there. He corrected your father. He explained that he had taunted you into showing him your Pa’s rifle. Fred stated that he couldn’t believe he was actually holding the rifle used by the Rifleman in his hands and then when you tried to take it away, he wasn’t ready to let it go. Then inthe struggle, the rifle discharged. Micah stated he was filing the report as an accidental shooting.”
“Accidental shooting…” I shook my head. “If I had been an adult…”
Mr. Toomey held the bread out to me again, but I shook my head. “She made it for you, Mark. She wants you to have it.” I could hear the sympathy in his voice, but it hurt too much to look at him.
I slapped it away this time. “NO!” I cried out.
Mr. Toomey stood up. “Alright, Mark. Wallow in your self pity. But remember this: in denying the truth, you’re not only punishing yourself – which is probably what your trying to do – but your punishing everyone around you.” He started to walk away, but then he turned back to Freddie, who had taken a seat on the ground next to me. “Don’t be out too late. You know how your mother worries.”
“I know how he worries too,” Freddie grumbled as his Pa walked away. He drew his knees up to his chest as he stared at the hole. “Charlie was at school on Friday.” He shook his head. “I just can’t believe he’s going to be buried tomorrow.”
I slowly turned and looked at Freddie. “Friday…” I wished I could go back to that day. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized today was Sunday. Pa had hardly EVER made me work on Sunday. I’m sure that was a soul-wrenching choice for him to make. Today, I worked harder than ever before. I rubbed at the blisters that were starting on my hands, even through the gloves.
“What was it like?” Freddie suddenly asked. “I mean…” Freddie shrugged. “Digging the hole?”
“Lay off[M1] , Freddie.” I tried to shrug it off, but Freddie wouldn’t drop it.
“I heard your Pa was awful sore.” Freddie turned and looked at me. “Some of the kids were talking at church this morning. They said that…” Freddie stopped.
“Said what?” I asked.
“Well…That…That your Pa did an awful lot of yelling in town Saturday afternoon.” I didn’t say anything, but just stared straight ahead. “Anyway…they said he was awful sore.”
I sighed. “I heard you were awful sore.”
Freddie and I looked at each other. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I could tell from the look in his eye that he was still plenty sore at me. “Yeah.” I sighed. “I feel like everyone hates me.”
“They’ll understand…in time.” Freddie said. “Most of them will forgive you.”
“The rifle shot Charlie, and I’m being blamed. What is there for me to be forgiven for? I hate Pa’s rifle! It’s nothing but death!” I grumbled.
I felt Freddie’s eyes grow cold. He slowly stood up. I looked up at him, surprised at his reaction. “You know Mark, I understand you being upset and all…but to not accept the fact that you had a part in Charlie’s death…that’s just wrong.” My mouth gaped open as Freddie hurried out of the graveyard leaving me completely alone.
The sun had completely set by the time I started for home. The whole way home terrible thoughts continued to plague me – like how I allowed my pride to give in to the taunting and into giving Fred Pa’s rifle. Death…I remembered one time Pa told me it was nothing to be proud of - that a man was about to die. I allowed my mind to think that he had to be proud of his rifle, he carried it practically everywhere he went. I remembered also many times when I was little and Pa carried me. In one arm, he held me. And in the other…it was his rifle. The rifle, it was always everywhere he was – his son and his rilfe.
Maybe I was feeling sorry for myself. The thoughts that plagued me weren’t really from ME – they were thoughts from the guilt and the darkness that I was allowing to invade my being. They were part of the denial I was going through. My thoughts grew darker as I thought more on the rifle. Just then, my thoughts turned uglier. No, it was his rifle and his son, his rifle -- death.
I walked into the yard and started for the house, but as I stopped in front of it, I saw the lantern outside the door lit. Inside, I could see the lantern on the table lit as well. I knew Pa was in there waiting for me. Suddenly, I saw his face in the window. I turned and walked into the darkened barn and put the shovel in its place.
Inside, I was still bitter for Pa asking me if I had asked God for forgiveness. It was his rifle. In the dark, I climbed up into the hayloft and crawled over to where the blanket from last night still lay. I curled up into a ball and pulled the blanket over me. Exhaustion and lack of food took their toll and I was asleep before I knew it. I didn’t hear Pa come in the barn or hear him climb up the ladder to the hayloft. I didn’t hear him pray to God to ease the burden he felt I was carrying. But I found out later he had done those things.
That night, it wasn’t a restful sleep that greeted me. I dreamed over and over again about the rifle going off, and it wasn’t just the shot that killed Charlie. I heard rifle shots and then saw a body lying mortally wounded…and another…and another. There were just too many names and faces to remember. Every man was someone’s son like Charlie. Many of them were killed with my Pa behind the rifle.
My dream changed. I heard Charlie laughing…But suddenly, I was awakened by the rooster crowing. And then the barn door creaked open.
I heard Pa call from the doorway, “Mark, I want you in the house in five minutes to eat breakfast.” He didn’t give me a chance to respond. The barn door closed as he walked out.
I had no choice. To ignore Pa’s order would cause more yelling, and I was too numb. I felt like I was dying inside. I slowly climbed down the ladder and walked outside. As I opened the door, I squinted my eyes to the bright morning sun as it rose over the hill. With the sun shining bright, it tormented me even more.
I entered the house. I couldn’t keep from looking down as I walked inside. There it was, as usual - where it always was. When it wasn’t in his hand…it sat there in easy reach. I quickly headed for the bedroom, hoping I could avoid conversation.
“Son, have a seat and eat your breakfast,” Pa stated.
I froze in my steps. But I didn’t turn to him. I stared at the closed bedroom door as I spoke. “I’m not hungry.” That’s what my mouth said, but my stomach betrayed me.
“You will eat what I have fixed and then you’ll do your morning chores and then you will take a bath before we head to town.” His voice didn’t hold the bitterness like it had the day before. “I told Lou we’d pick her up at the hotel and then ride to the cemetery.” Pa spoke in orders – not questions. I was too numb to care.
I sat down at the table and picked up my fork. I closed my eyes as I lifted a bite of eggs to my mouth. They tasted like rubber. I began pushing them back and forth on my plate. Pa sat down beside me. “Mark, where did you go?”
I looked up at him. His question confused me. “I was in the barn. I-“
Pa shook his head. “No, I mean where are you right now?”
“I’m right here,” I replied.
“No you weren’t. Physically you were, but… How can I reach you? What can I say to help you?”
I suddenly slammed my fork down on my plate. “Nothing, Pa! Can’t you understand there’s nothing you can do…nothing you can say…that can bring Charlie back?” I stood up. My chair fell with a bang. “He’s dead, Pa! Nothing can EVER change that!”
“I know, son. Please sit down!”
“No!” I cried. “No, I won’t sit down!” I hurried to the door of my bedroom. I paused. “Pa, do I have to go today to…” I stopped.
“Yes, son. You do.”
“I’d rather not…” I stated.
Pa sighed a deep sigh. “I know. But you’d regret it later after…after you heal. That’s why I’m making you go. You have to face this. You have to face what you did. It’s part of becoming a man, to face this, in front of our friends.”
His words made me angry. I turned and glared at him. I hurried to the front door. “I’m gonna go do my chores.” I gave it a hard slam as I left.
When we got to the graveyard, I kept my head down. I couldn’t stand to look at anyone around me. I could feel stares and whispers as Pa kept an arm around my shoulders and led me to our spot. The coffin sat in front of me – the lid firmly nailed closed. I stared at it as my body became more numb.
There’s a different kind of quiet at a funeral. I can’t explain it, but it’s sad and depressing. That didn’t help my mood any. Across from me stood Micah. He was giving me a sympathetic look – something I didn’t want. Pa stood beside me. Lou stood on the other side of me.
Suddenly, I heard a woman crying. I turned and watched as Mrs. Tanner walked in. Her husband was practically carrying her. I started to turn away, but Pa’s arm tightened on my shoulder. I looked down at my feet. There was nowhere else for me to look.
The preacher spoke a few words. I heard Mr. Tanner as he sobbed. It broke my heart. I listened as Mrs. Tanner wept. She fell to her knees and touched the coffin as her sobs became worse.
There was nowhere for me to turn. I stared at the grieving mother as my heart grew even more numb. Mr. Tanner finally reached down and grabbed his wife by her shoulders. “No…No…” She sobbed. But Mr. Tanner pulled on her until she stood. She turned and looked at me. Our eyes met.
A little piece of my heart chipped off and died.
Pa nudged me and we turned and walked out of the graveyard with Pa and Lou. "That's the end of Charlie. Just lying in a box with rocks and dirt over him.” It seemed so unfair. My heart ached for Charlie’s parents.
"Let's go home son."
Those words tormented my soul. The thoughts of home were no comfort to me at the moment. They tortured my soul.
"Sure. Go home and step over the spot where he was killed with your rifle.” I stared at Pa’s rifle as the knot in my gut twisted even tighter.
“Don’t blame the rifle, Mark. It didn’t trigger itself.” I said nothing. I just stood there feeling very lost. “It was an accident, son. Don’t let yourself brood. That can twist a man’s mind until he can't think straight anymore.” Pa put his hand on my shoulder and again suggested we go home.
“Uh…Pa?” I turned and looked at him. The look in my eyes was…very painful for Pa, I could tell. “I don’t want to go home right now. Would you mind? I…I’d just like to ride somewhere by myself for awhile.”
Pa nodded and told me he’d see me at supper. I didn’t care. I hurried to my horse and rode away. The sun shone over the range. I rode Blue Boy as fast as I could, hoping it would unfreeze the numbness inside of me, but it did nothing but make Blue Boy tuckered. I finally had to get down and walk him home. I could kick myself for running him so hard because now that I was walking, the thoughts…the memories…they became so much more real.
When I got home, I was happy to see that Pa was still gone. I walked inside and sat down at the table. I picked up my writing tablet and opened it. I gasped as I read a scribbled note on the page. “My cousin’s coming for a visit today.”
Charlie had written that Friday during our history lesson. I sent the note back to him. “I have lots of chores to do Saturday, but can you bring him over? Pa won’t let me leave the ranch.”
“We’ll come over around lunch time on Saturday. Then maybe we can talk your Pa into letting you go fishing with us.” Charlie had written.
I put a great big happy face. “YES!”
Those words had been written only Friday. Today…three days later…Charlie was in the dark, cold ground. I dropped the tablet on the table and buried my face in my hands as I heard the shot from that stupid rifle again. It echoed throughout the house.
Another piece of my heart died.
At this rate, I’d soon join Charlie in the graveyard, and at this moment, I didn’t care. I didn’t really realize it, but at the moment I didn’t care rather I lived or died. I didn’t care rather Pa hated me or not. I wished the ground would open up and swallow me whole so the pain would stop.
I finally wiped my eyes and went to start supper. Just the sight of food made me nauseous. The smell almost brought me to the point of heaving all over again.
The sun was going down as I set the table. I knew Pa would be home soon and he’d have that rifle with him. There wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
I was just finishing up with supper when Pa showed up. The table was set for one. I had no desire to eat. The thought of food was more than I could handle. I hadn’t eaten since the accident, and I had no desire to eat now. I was more hungry than I’d ever been in my life, yet I couldn’t bring myself to eat. I think Pa knew how bad off I was, but I was just too deep to do anything about it.
Pa was talking, but I paid no mind to what he was saying. I had other things on my mind. "Your ride today help you clear things up?" I didn’t answer - just told him supper was ready. “Have you eaten?” Pa asked as he walked over to the table.
“I…I’m not hungry right now, Pa.” I turned to walk away. I knew Pa was worried about me, but I didn’t care. And that made things worse.
“Mark!” Pa grasped the back of the chair and looked at me. “You and I aren’t like this. When there’s a problem we usually talk it out.” I told Pa I needed to get to bed. I slowly walked toward the bedroom. I put my hand on the door and opened it. Then Pa spoke. “Mark, shut the door and turn around, please,” he ordered in a calm voice.
I had to obey him. “There’s nothing to talk out, Pa!” I declared.
“I want you to get what’s bothering you off your mind, son.” Pa turned and looked at me.
"That's what's bother me! I can't stand to look at it anymore!" I yelled as I pointed to the rifle.
"Mark...there's been times if I hadn't had that rifle, you might not have been born."
"I Wish I hadn't been!" I suddenly cried.
The look on Pa’s face made me wish I hadn’t said those words. I knew I had been falling deeper and deeper into this pit, but until I spoke the words aloud…I had no idea. My words hurt Pa in a way I’d never hurt him before.
Pa turned from me. I watched as he walked over to his rifle and picked it up. "When I hear you say that about the life your mother gave you, I...I know you’re not yourself." I heard the hurt in Pa’s voice. It also hurt me – that he’d bring my mother into this now…But he was speaking again.
"You know son...when I was a boy...your grandpa gave me a knife. It was something I had been yearning for, for a long time." All the time he’s telling the story he’s handling the rifle. "My mother didn't want me to have it. Anyway, I found me a choice piece of wood and I set out carving a pipe rack for my Pa. I guess I got careless because the knife slipped and I cut myself. It was a bad cut. I threw the knife down and just ran home. It took a long time to stop the bleeding. But when it did stop.....my Pa asked me where that knife was. I told him I never wanted to see it again. You know what he did? He told me to go out and find it. Well I found it alright, the only thing was, I couldn't pick it up. I just stood there and looked down at it, until my Ma came along. She picked it up...she closed it...she put it in my hand. And she looked at me and she said...'I'm not afraid anymore son and you mustn't be'."
Pa looked down at his rifle. Holding it firmly, he drew his finger toward him. “Commere, Mark.”
I didn’t like seeing that rifle in Pa’s hand, but I knew that I had to go to him. Keeping my hands guarded behind me, I slowly walked over to him. Pa held the rifle out to me. “Don’t you be afraid. Take the rifle.” He held it out to me.
I backed away. “No…please, Pa.” I turned my head away – couldn’t even look at it!
“Mark…” Pa walked towards me. “Take it!”
“I can’t! I can’t!” I gasped. I felt sick inside again as I glared at that thing in Pa’s hands. “Don’t you understand, pa? I get sick just being near it!”
“Take the rifle, Mark!” Pa ordered.
“No!” I screamed. I turned and ran into the bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I fell on my bed and cried bitter tears once again. My hands were shaking and I felt chills all over my body.
Another part of my heart chipped away. I felt like I was dying.
After my tears were spent, I sat up and wiped my face with my sleeve. I heard a soft voice and a sound from the other room. Slowly and quietly, I walked toward the door and opened it a crack. Pa was on his knees in front of the fire. He was weeping as he cried out to God – begging God to help me. “He needs you, Lord. He won’t talk to me. I asked you last night to help him, but he’s worse today. Please help me…help me reach my son…” His words poured out. It hurt to listen…to see him weep like that. I couldn’t take the sight. I had hurt everyone around me. No one seemed to understand the truth.
I had to get away! I went to the closet and grabbed a carpet bag. Then I rushed to the dresser and grabbed clothing. I stuffed them in my bag. Then I reached behind me and touched the Bible. I quickly snapped my hand back. Touching it made my hand feel like it was on fire and I didn’t understand that.
At the moment, I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. All I knew was that I had to get away from here. I couldn’t stand seeing my father like this. I couldn’t stand looking around and seeing memories of the times I enjoyed Pa and his rifle. I just…I had to go away!
I heard the door open and close. I saw Pa walk out to the barn. Now was my chance to get away. I hurried to the kitchen and grabbed some fruit. Then I snuck out the back door. I waited until Pa went back inside the house. Then I snuck to the barn, saddled my horse, and quietly rode away from the ranch. Once I was far enough that I knew Pa couldn’t hear us, I kicked Blue Boy into a lope, I didn’t look back.
When I got into town, I went to the hotel and knocked on the back door. Lou invited me in. I think she knew something was wrong. The questions she asked made me think she knew I was running away. I told her I was leaving the next morning. Suddenly, she sat down. “I’m your friend. I won’t pry, but I do want you to know I want to help.” I just looked at her. “You want to talk about it?”
The concern in her voice melted my heart. I suddenly started crying again. She put a hand on my shoulder and I accepted her offer. She took me into her arms as if I was a six year old little boy again. She held me while I cried. “What’s going on?” Lou asked softly as I lifted my head from her shoulder. She wiped tears from my cheek. “Please…don’t shut me out too.”
“Nobody understands me, Lou! Nobody…” I cried. “It’s that rifle…I HATE it, Lou! I DESPISE it! Why does it have to be there? Doesn’t Pa understand that it killed my friend? It took an only child away from his parents and they are now heart broken?”
I waited for Lou to condemn me like everyone else had, but she didn’t. She didn’t say a thing for several moments. Finally, when she spoke it was like a mother speaking to her child. “You’ve been fighting this alone, Mark. This is probably the worst thing that’s ever happened, yet you’re fighting alone. Why?”
“That’s just it!” I cried. “No one understands how I feel… They judge it against me, when it was that rifle. If it hadn’t been there… It’s more a part of him than I am, yet all it brings is death.” I felt as if I could confess everything to her. She was there to listen – not judge. I sat down next to her. “I feel like I’m dying inside, Lou. I feel so lost…each day it just gets worse and worse…” I lowered my head. “I have to get away.”
“Where you running to, Mark?” Lou asked.
“California.” It was the first thing I could think of. “Lou, I don’t ask much, and I’m proud, but…could I borrow $25?”
“You think running away is going to solve what’s really hurting you, Mark?” Lou looked into my eyes. “You can run away from many things, Mark. But you can’t run away from yourself.”
Her words were so true that they angered me. “I’m not running from myself! I’m…I’m…running from that rifle!” I yelled. I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry, Lou. I shouldn’t have yelled.”
Lou put a hand on mine. She gave me a sad smile. “I tell you what, Mark. You go on upstairs and get a good rest. Then you join me in the morning for a hearty breakfast. At that time, if you still want to go to California, I’ll give you the money.” I nodded in understanding. “Room five.”
I started for the stairs. But before I climbed them, I turned and looked at Lou. “Thanks, Lou…” She smiled at me. “For listening. I think that’s what I needed most.”
I walked upstairs and put my bag down. Then I sat on the bed and just stared off into space. I sat there for a long time just thinking. Everything was so blurry…I couldn’t focus on anything anymore. I felt so desperate, so alone, yet, I wanted these feelings gone.
Suddenly, the door opened. I turned, as I sat on the bed, to see Pa standing in the doorway. “Can I come in?”
I wasn’t surprised to see him. In a way, I expected it. In a way, I wanted it. I knew it was childish of me to run away in hopes my Pa would come after me, but for some reason it felt like it was the only thing I could do at the moment. “Lou told me she loaned you $25. I thought you might need a little more to carry you where you were going.” Pa laid the money on the dresser.
I must admit I noticed something missing the minute he walked in. I couldn’t keep the question from coming. “Uh…didn’t you bring your rifle?”
“I left it downstairs.” Pa slowly walked over to the bed. He bent down in front of me. “Mark…” He put a hand under my chin and lifted it so I could look into his eyes. “I should have said this two days ago. Son…I love you.”
Those words usually brought a smile to my face, but tonight, they did little to comfort me. “And because I love you, I have to try to make you see the truth. I have to talk this out with you.” Pa stood up and paced the floor. “Mark, will you please allow me inside?”
“You came in…” I answered.
“No Mark, not the room. Your heart.”
He sat on the bed. I immediately turned from him. My heart felt as if it were bursting into a million pieces and I didn’t understand why. “Son, you are facing your darkest moment. You’re seeing something inside yourself…something that lives in all of us – even me.”
I wasn’t ready to hear any of it. Pa sighed. He reached out and touched my shoulder but I pulled away. I didn’t want his touch…
“I’m facing the fact that I hate your gun. I hate your rifle!” I cried. “You were so right all these years that its nothing to be proud of, yet you carry it everywhere.”
“I don’t think it’s my rifle you hate, son. I think it’s something else.” This was said so quietly that I wasn’t sure if Pa said it or…if it came from my own thoughts. I closed my eyes. Then Pa spoke again. “Mark, just remember, a rifle is a tool like an ax or a crowbar, it doesn’t have a mind of it’s own either good or bad. We talked about that when I bought you your .22. Of course, if it’s used wrong, someone could get hurt.”
“Someone can get killed,” I stated. I turned and looked at Pa. His words made me ache.
Pa continued to try to get me to let him in, yet I wasn’t willing. I wanted to talk, yet I didn’t. Talking things out is what I craved…what I longed for; yet it was so painful…it hurt so much that I couldn’t let it happen.
“Mark I do understand how you feel, for knowing someone died because of a gun in your hands.” Pa said quietly. I heard the pain in his own voice. I hated that I was hurting him like this, but I hated myself even more.
“Then WHY?” I demanded, bitterly.
“Why?” Pa asked, not understanding.
“It’s more a part of you than I am. Everywhere you go, its there. When I was little, it was always in your other hand, opposite me. You sit there and say you know how I feel, well, Micah never made you dig the grave over someone you killed!” I cried. “Do you know what that did to me? Do you know the hatred digging that grave has caused? Oh, I want to die! I just…I just want to die!” Again, I buried my face in my hands and wept.
“Son…” Even that one word irked me. I suddenly spun around. My eyes were wet with hot, burning tears as I lashed out at the only thing I could!
“It was an accident! It wasn’t done on purpose! You allow yourself to talk to God and you talk with Micah after you’ve killed someone. But that wasn’t good enough for me. No, I had to dig his grave too. Every shovelful of dirt made me hate!. Then you came and asked me if I had asked Him for forgiveness. What was there to forgive?! You all had condemned me! Isn’t it bad enough that I hated myself? Don’t you understand?! I hate me!” I sobbed.
Pa reached out and rubbed my back. This time I didn’t pull away, I was too exhausted, physically and emotionally. I felt a guiding hand lay me down on the bed and as I laid down I wiped at my tears. Still, Pa’s hand was there on my back, waiting… He didn’t say anything. I don’t know if he didn’t know how to answer me or if he was waiting for me to continueI just knew one thing – I was tired of hurting…I just wanted the pain to go away somehow. “I hate myself so much… I want to die! I’d give anything to see Charlie standing in his parents’ arms.”
“So would I, son.”
His words surprised me. I suddenly sat up and turned and looked at Pa. His eyes pleaded to help me. They pleaded to…”Pa…help me! I’m dying inside…The pain – it’s too much!
“Let’s just take this slow and easy,” Pa quietly spoke. Pa’s arms went around me. But his arms didn’t little to comfort me. The pain grew as another piece of my heart chipped away and fell to the cold, hard floor.
My stomach grumbled just then. “You haven’t eaten in days, son.” Pa pulled away from me and looked into my eyes. “You have GOT to eat, Mark.” I saw a fear in his eyes that I didn’t recognize. “Can I…get you some milk? It might help settle your stomach so you can eat something, later.”
I raised my eyebrows and looked at Pa. I saw the concern in his eyes. I felt a warmth suddenly creep into my heart. It wasn’t much…just a little bit –. I nodded. “Milk…sounds good, Pa.”
“Alright.” Pa nodded. “After the milk, I want you to get to sleep. Then in the morning, after breakfast, we’ll…talk. We’re going to talk and talk…and we aren’t going to stop until this thing is settled.” Pa stood up and went toward the door.
“Pa?” I suddenly felt embarrassed. Pa waited for me to speak. “Will you…stay? I mean…” I looked away from him for a moment, then turned back. “I mean…you’ll stay until this is over?”
Pa smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The minute he left, I felt the same sad darkness come over me. I wondered if he’d return with his rifle in his hand. I couldn’t stand that thought. You see, I was beginning to realize where the blame laid, I knew Fred was partly to blame, and if I admitted that, then I would also have to admit I was to blame too; but it was still easier to blame the rifle because if it hadn’t been there... And I would…Until I no longer could.
Even if it ate me alive.
Pa was gone for a long time. I grew worried and started scurrying down the stairs. I started to ask Lou about Pa and my milk, but then I froze. “Excuse me,” I stated. Lou and Pa were there, but so was another man and the conversation didn’t look pleasant…
Suddenly, a turn of events had sent me into more turmoil.
My mind was so clogged with so much stuff that this whole scene seemed to be a blur. There was this man – a big, ugly man who talked really mean. He asked me if I knew how to hitch up a team to a wagon. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but I did know he was holding Pa and Miss Lou…and now me…hostage. So I gave him a dirty look, then I said, “Maybe.”
He laughed this evil laugh and declared that I was going to get a “new” Ma. I was confused and so lost. This was the last thing I wanted to deal with in the mist of my turmoil. “What’s he talking about?” I asked at one point. To this day, I’m still not sure what he was planning on doing. But I found myself with Pa and Miss Lou in the front lobby of the hotel. Lou suddenly felt like she was going to faint so I rushed over to help her. “The rifle…it’s behind the counter!” she declared.
The rifle…She might as well told me there was a live, venomous snake behind the counter. I wanted nothing to do with it. The big man pushed me away from Lou and I found myself behind the counter with it... Then a man came down the stairs. I knew the big man…I think Pa called him Vantine or something like that…He was about to shoot this man on the stairs in the back. Pa looked at me silently. He begged me with his eyes to please throw him the rifle.
He won’t stop at this little man, a voice deep inside me said. Your father and Lou are in danger…and so are you. Four people will die if you don’t reach out and grab it.
I felt a turmoil like you wouldn’t believe! My eyes focused on the gun. My hand shook as I reached for it, but I couldn’t…I just…Vantine’s gun cocked. It was now or never. I closed my eyes, picked up the rifle and threw it as hard as I could. “PA!” I cried. My hand ached from touching it.
Then I heard the shots from my father’s rifle – the first discharged since … it shot my friend.
The sound of it made me ache even more. The sounds of the shots sounded over and over in my mind.
I slowly walked out from behind the counter and stared down at the scene before me. I didn’t see that man there. Instead, I saw Charlie. I looked up at Pa who just looked down at me.
It was over, but the turmoil in my soul was far from over! I looked down at Pa’s rifle still in his hand. The sound of the gunshots still echoed in my head. Another person had died at the hand of my father’s rifle.
The room was suddenly filled with activity as I stood there in the middle of the floor. Men were all around. Micah asked Pa what had happened. Lou looked like she needed Pa’s arms around her. I felt so lost…so hurt and I DID want to die! I DID! I threw a hand to my mouth, turned, and started up the stairs. I wanted to be alone. Maybe if I just went to sleep, the pain would go away.
But Pa knew the torture I was feeling and he didn’t want me left alone. Because for some strange reason, he loved me even though I couldn’t love myself. For some reason, he cared when I no longer did.
“Lou, go with him!” I heard Pa order. I tried to close the door before she could come in, but her foot caught in the doorway as it started to shut. I looked up at her and she gave me a weak smile. I turned away from her. I ran across the room and stared out the window.
Lou hurried over to the table and poured a glass of water. She handed it to me but my hand was shaking so hard I could hardly hold the cup. I shook my head. Then I sat on the bed and pulled my boots off. I buried my face in my hands as Lou sat on the bed next to me. The tears wouldn’t stop coming. Lou put an arm around me, but it ached! She too loved me…Why did everyone keep loving me? I didn’t understand! “Would you like some milk?”
I shook my head. Slowly, I lay down on the bed and drew my knees to my chest. Lou suddenly grabbed my arm and lifted me off the bed. “I’m sure it’s been a long time since…” She pulled the covers back. “Come on, in with ya!” I sat down and took my belt off. Then I lay down. Lou tucked the covers under my chin. I hardly even noticed. I noticed the room darken and a few moments later I heard Lou sit down in a chair next to my bed. Softly, she began humming, trying to sing me to sleep as if I were again that little six year old boy.
But sleep wouldn’t come. My mind was tortured with thoughts, sounds, smells, sights... Again, I heard the gunshot – it was the gunshot from Saturday, the one that killed my friend. Then I heard Pa’s angry, condemning voice. “This boy’s dead!” I began gasping for breath as I lay there in the dimly lit room. Suddenly, the ugly truth was known – I was to blame for Charlie's death, not the rifle. Though it had made me sick, just a few moments earlier, I had to grab Pa's rifle and toss it to him in order to save the life of another man. A chill came over me as I realized I had taken part in taking another life.
It was too much for me to handle! I bolted out of bed and threw open the door. I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I raced down the steps two at a time and pushed through the kitchen and out the back door. I rushed out the door and dropped to my knees as I began gasping…gasping…gasping for breath.
“Mark!” I heard Lou cry my name as I raced for the door. Now she rushed out calling my name again. I couldn’t breathe, I kept trying to take heavy gasps for air, but my lungs felt as if they wouldn’t work.
“Oh no!” Lou breathed as she grasped my shoulders and held me from behind. “Lucas!” She screamed. “Oh Mark, try to calm yourself!” Then she turned her head back toward the hotel. “Lucas!” she screamed again.“It’s Mark! Hurry!”
Pa was at my side in no time flat. “Mark!” Pa bent down beside me. “Somebody get Doc!” Pa cried as I continued gasping for breath, breath that wouldn’t come. My mind was becoming blurry and my hands and arms became numb. I couldn’t catch my breath. I guess some people from the saloon who had heard the gunfire and came to see what was happening, followed Pa out back. I heard Doc arrive, by pushing his way through the small crowd and immediately started telling me to take slow, deep breaths as I felt a bag being placed to my mouth. My mind finally began to clear.
Lou’s concerned eyes stared into mine. “That’s it, Mark…That’s it…”
Her arms suddenly released me as Pa’s replaced them. His arm was around my shoulders as he talked soothingly to me. “That’s it, son…that’s it…” he said softly. “You just got too upset, that’s all. It’s okay son, happens to the best of us.”
Lou turned and noticed the crowd. She jumped up and put her hands on her hips. “What’s wrong with the lot of ya? Ya got nothin’ better to do then watch a young boy in his suffering? Now get yourself on home! All of you! Shoo!” I heard her as she chased the crowd away as if they were chickens. Pa’s hands supported me, but in time, I couldn’t hold myself up any more, I collapsed into Pa’s arms and cried uncontrollably. "I killed another human being tonight."
"No son, you didn't kill him, I did."
"But my hand was on the rifle, just as it was when Charlie died. A man died tonight." I choked out through my tears.
Pa grabbed my face and lifted it up towards his. "Yes, Mark. A man died tonight…an evil, no good man who was going to kill that salesman, me…and Lou…and you…but four more people lived. And countless others will live too, because Vantine's dead." Pa shook his head slowly. “I didn’t have a choice to let him live, son. He didn’t give me a choice. YOU, son…YOU had a choice. Can’t you see that?”
I still couldn’t accept the words…his words were meant to calm me, but I knew the truth and wouldn’t…or couldn’t…accept it.
In time, Pa helped me to my feet and more than not, he carried me back into the hotel and into bed. As sleep pulled at me, I heard Lou offer to bring a cot into the room for Pa.
He answered, "No, I think I need to be closer to him tonight than I've been in a long time.” Pa answered softly as he patted my back. “ I'll share the bed."
I think I was asleep before my head touched the pillow. I allowed it to fall over me like a soft blanket. I hadn’t been able to sleep since the accident, yet now there was no trouble. When my eyes opened, it was light. Rays of sunshine shone in the room. I lifted my head from the pillow to find Pa at the window staring down onto the street. He heard me wake and turned from the window. “Good morning, son.” Pa rushed over to the bed.
I sat up. “I’m sure you’re ready to get home, Pa.”
Pa pushed a hand against my chest. “No, son. Remember last night?.” I lifted my eyebrows. “I told you, we were not leaving this room until we’ve worked this out.”
“It could be a long time, Pa.”
Pa gripped my arms and stared into my eyes as his eyes filled with tears. “I don’t care if it’s a day, a week, or a month, Mark! We’re going to stay here and talk…and talk…and talk! I’m not going to watch you slowly killing yourself in grief and starvation! You ARE going to live! You are going to live a long, healthy, happy life even if…even if it kills me!”
That brought everything back. I remembered the night before – touching the gun…the tears, the realization that I was to blame. I should have felt relief, but I hated what I had done…I hated myself…I suddenly pulled from Pa’s grip and turned on the bed, I curled up with my back to Pa. I didn’t deserve to have him look at me.
“Lou’s preparing us breakfast and will bring it up soon, son. You must be starving. You haven’t eaten in days.”
“I’m alright, Pa,” I stated.
“You will be, son. First you eat.” Just then, there was a knock on the door. I quickly sat up and pulled my pants on as Pa went to answer the door. Lou brought the tray inside. “Mark, this is your lucky day!” Lou declared as she walked into the room. “My homemade pancakes and maple syrup, made from a recipe that’s been in my family for generations!” Her bright morning voice was more than I cared to hear today.
“Generations?” Pa teased her. I knew he was trying to lighten the mood.
Miss Lou placed a fist on her hip. “Well…a few years anyhow! Now, you eat these, Mark. Your father tells me pancakes are your favorite for breakfast!”
“I’m not hungry!” I mumbled as I sat back down on the bed.
“Not hungry?” Lou folded her arms and started toward me. “What do you mean you’re not hungry, young man?”
“Lou…” Pa started to warn. I looked up to see Lou hold up a hand to stop Pa.
She walked over to the bed and placed a hand on each hip as she bent down and looked me squarely in the eyes. “Mark McCain, now that’s just about enough out of you!” She pointed toward the table. “Now, I want you to march yourself right over there and eat!”
I didn’t care how bossy she wanted to be…I wasn’t in the mood. “Miss Lou, I…”
But she didn’t let me finish. “I let you spill your sorrows on me last night didn’t I? Now, this morning, you return the favor by eating my pancakes!” I opened my mouth to protest again. She lifted those eyebrows and pressed her lips together. I’d seen her give that look to Pa a couple times and even he wasn’t brave enough to fight it.
I gave a defeated sigh. “Yes ma’am.” Lou went to stand by the table. She poured syrup over my pancakes then looked down at me. The look on her face told me she wouldn’t leave until she was sure I was putting the food into my body. “Feed your body before you feed your soul!” Lou declared as I took a bite. “That’s what my dear ol’ father used to say!”
The first bite suddenly made me realize how hungry I was. Normally I would have polished off the entire plate and dared to ask for seconds, but I hadn’t eaten for so long that my stomach was protesting.
A look of relief passed over Pa’s face, that at least I had eaten.
“Do you want seconds Mark? I’ll have ya know there’s no charge! For the the food or the room, ” I shook my head. Then she grabbed the tray, turned on her toes, and walked to the door. She swiftly turned back around. “Lucas…I’ll be returning with a big stack of pancakes for you!” Then she left.
I guess Pa laughed, because he felt Lou was behaving like a mother hen to us, but I couldn’t bring myself to it. I took a drink of my milk. Then as I thought on everything, I began swirling the milk around in my glass. Pa sighed as he sat down his fork. Miss Lou came in just then and saw that we wanted to be alone. So she quietly sat the tray down. “I’ll be downstairs if you need anything, Lucas.” She acted as if I was a condemned man eating his last meal. “If I don’t hear from you before noon, I’ll bring sandwiches up and leave them outside your door.”
Pa ate in silence. When he was finished he asked, “What are you thinking, son?”
I shook my head. “I don’t want to think, Pa. It’s too painful.”
“Why?” Pa asked softly.
“Are you…still angry at me?”
“No, son. I think you’ve put yourself through more punishment then I could ever…I just feel a deep, deep sorrow for you, son.” Pa reached out and touched my arm.
“Why?” I asked. “Why would you feel sorrow for me? I didn’t lose anything, Pa!”
“You lost that last little piece of innocence…” Pa started to say, but I didn’t let him finish.
Charlie…he lost his life because of…of me…” I lowered my head in shame. I swallowed. “I realize now, Pa, that it’s not your rifle I should blame, but myself.”
“You had help, son,” Pa said.
I lifted my head and looked at him. “Fred?” Pa nodded. “Yes but, like you said, I could have said no. I’m guilty enough that I could have pulled the trigger myself.”
“And I’m sorry that you’ll live with that every day for the rest of your life, son. It will haunt you. It’s one of those secrets you may just bury deep, deep inside yourself and relive it from time to time. We all have things of that nature inside us, son…We all do things that are so horrible to live with, but we have to go on living.”
I sighed as I closed my eyes. “There’s been moments these last few days that I…” I couldn’t finish my statement.
“I know, son…I know…” Pa put his hand on top of mine. “You have the Lord with you at all times. You have love and a good heart…I knew you’d never do anything drastic.”
“Pa…” I sighed. “I…I hate myself.”
“No you don’t, Mark.” Pa shook his head. He stood up and walked over to his rifle. He picked it up and walked back over to me. “Son…I never told you how I came to have this rifle, did I?”
I looked up at him. His eyes held pain. It was the same pain I saw in them when I was seven years old. I shook my head. “No sir.”
Pa sat down across from me. “I want to tell you.”
“Pa, you don’t have…” I stopped as he lifted his head.
“Son, I had hoped to never have to tell you of how my rifle came to be.. But,I feel it’s time. Your mother knew why because she was there. She tried to understand…” Pa went to look out the window. “I had returned to Oklahoma after the war. Your mother and I…we’d always been friends, but something happened when I returned and we fell in love.” I watched as a sweet smile spread across Pa’s face. “She was so beautiful! She made me laugh. But there were so many memories of the war…so many…”
Pa continued to stare out the window as his smile died. “One night, a friend of mine was senselessly killed. I had gone to school with him, then we went off to war together…but we didn’t return home together. When he returned, he was so different…the war changed him in a horrid way. The prison camp had been terrible for him. He hated life and everything in it.” Pa looked down at his rifle and stared at it. “I carried a rifle then, but it was just a regular rifle.”
Pa suddenly became very quiet. I could tell he was reliving the memories of that day over and over. I watched the color drain from his face. I watched his eyes moisten. “Pa?” I called quietly.
I wondered if he ever heard me. But just then, he started talking again. “He was drinking heavily that night, one whiskey after another…after another. Your Uncle Johnny found me - I was with your mother. He told me that my friend was getting in trouble. I grabbed my rifle and headed to town.” Pa sighed. “When I got there, another man had him out on the street. He was threatening him…trying to get him to draw. ‘You have him at a disadvantage!’ I cried. ‘This ain’t a fair fight! He’s drunk!’” Pa’s voice sounded as if he were back on that street in Enid, Oklahoma. He yelled as if he were there. “The other man, son…he just laughed. He reached for his gun. I tried to shoot him, but I was too slow. I watched my friend crumple to the ground at my feet.”
Pa grew quiet again. He turned from the window and walked the length of the hotel room. “I was angry! I asked the sheriff to press charges, but he wouldn’t do it. ‘It wasn’t a fair fight!’ I declared. ‘My friend was so drunk he couldn’t talk and barely could walk.’ But the sheriff just shook his head. ‘The law’s the law!’ he declared.
“So, I made this.” Pa lifted the rifle to show it to me. “Your mother tried to stop me, but I wouldn’t listen. My brother tried to stop me…but I wouldn’t listen. I made this rifle from something I’d read in a catalog – an idea somebody had for making a rifle, but it wasn’t tried. I tried it, though. And I did it. It was a rifle…a rifle that I could fire automatically as I cocked the leaver. The next drunk that man tried to shoot down…” Pa allowed his voice to die.
Pa shook his head as he again started pacing the door. “I knew your mother didn’t like it, Mark. She was angry with me at first. Then she hurt for me. Finally, she accepted that it was something I felt I had to do – a way for me to heal. Your mother always had good instincts, son. I should have listened to her.” Pa came and sat down. He laid the rifle on the table as he ran his hand up and down the stock. “One day it happened.” Pa closed his eyes. “I can still hear the words…I can still hear the shot…I can still see him fall…” Pa’s face held regret. “It was the same man – the one that gunned down my childhood friend. He came back to Enid and started drinking. Your mother told me not to go – we were married at this point and she begged me to stay with her, but I had to go…I wanted to confront him.
“’Leave the rifle here!’ That’s what your mother said. ‘I beg you, Luke…Leave it here!’ But I didn’t. Maybe if I had…” Pa put a hand to his face and groaned. “He wasn’t drunk, and he didn’t want to fight. Words were said. ‘You can’t shoot!’ he taunted me. Then he laughed at me. He lunged toward me and tried to grab my rifle. He didn’t know it had been modified to fire automatically. But I did. The rifle went off and he was dead.”
Pa stood up and walked back to the window. I allowed silence to once again fall over us. He was quiet for a long time. Finally, he turned back around. “I hated myself that day…or so I thought. I dropped the rifle on the floor and I fell with it. As I sat on the floor, I wept over my mistake. It was a mistake that I could never take back. I couldn’t move. I found out later that your mother had followed me into town. She stood outside that saloon and waited…and prayed. When I didn’t come out, your mother came into the saloon.”
I suddenly sucked in my breath, trying to imagine my mother in a saloon. Pa’s head shot around. “Yes son. Everyone had the same reaction. She walked into that saloon, bent down next to me and said, ‘Luke, we all have to make mistakes to learn. I love you and want you to come home.’” She took my face in her hands and kissed at my tears. She didn’t care who was watching. Then she bent down, picked that rifle up, grabbed my hand and walked me out of there.”
“My mother…picked up the rifle?” I asked in shock.
Pa smiled. “Yes. YOUR mother picked up the rifle. She was quite a woman!”
Pa wiped at a tear that had fallen from his eye. He turned from the window.
Pa walked back over to the table. “Your mother was a strong woman, son…on the inside…She was always that way. And she loved me when I couldn’t love myself. We walked home together. Her hand stayed in mine the whole time. When we walked into the house, shesat the rifle in its stand. I grew angry and grabbed it, planning to throw it into the fire, but Margaret…she grabbed my hand. ‘Don’t blame the rifle, Luke. It’s just as deadly as that axe outside.’” Then she sat me down at the table and explained to me that I should keep the rifle as a reminder of how deep I had allowed myself to sink. I had made that rifle in anger, and as long as I kept it…she knew I would never use it to seek out and intentionally kill another man again.”
“But…you didn’t kill him, Pa!” I declared. “He fought you over your rifle. It was an accident.”
Pa shook his head from side to side as he just looked at me. “I knew that wasn’t true, son. And so did your mother. I had made that rifle to get the advantage of him. I had gone to town with the intent to kill. If there hadn’t been witnesses who saw the struggle…you wouldn’t be here. Your mother saw the hatred in my eyes and tried to stop me. When it was over, she had every reason to hate me…but she didn’t…she loved me. And she forgave me when I couldn’t forgive myself.”
I suddenly remembered something Pa had said last night. “Pa, you told me back at the ranch that if it weren’t for that rifle, I would have never been born.” Pa nodded. “What…what did you mean by that?”
Pa closed his eyes. “If the witnesses hadn’t stated there was a struggle, I’d of been sent to prison, if not hung. And there were other things that happened, son…Word got out about me and my rifle. There are things I can’t talk about. There were some killings that occurred. They involved your mother, but the killings were to protect her…and you .”
I had heard that Pa did some things he regretted, but I never imagined something like this. “Did you really hate yourself Pa?”
Pa shook his head. “No, son. I came to realize in time that I hated what I had done. And I still hate it. And I’m still ashamed.”
“You…you didn’t have to tell me, Pa.”
”I know I didn’t, but I needed to explain a few things to you.” I saw Pa’s demeanor change as he continued to talk. I have something I need to talk to you about, son. I want to explain to you about your punishment.”
I looked up at Pa then. I heard the hesitation in his voice. It scared me. But I sat quietly and waited for him to explain.
“Son, I’m not going to apologize for insisting that you dig the grave for Charlie. It was the only punishment that I could think of that I thought would instill in you the value of life. And while you dug the grave I hoped you would ask God for guidance. I thought you’d come to accept your part in the ‘act’ that caused Charlie’s death.” Pa paused, allowing me to think on this.
He lifted his eyebrows as he looked at me. “When I arrived with your lunch, I realized you were still upset. I did’t like what I saw. You seemed worse – not better. Son, I was beside myself…I felt like you were slipping away from me and I didn’t know what to do! That’s why I asked you if you’d asked God for forgiveness. Because I knew that if you had, you would be okay. But what I I was really asking was if you had forgiven yourself.”
Pa put a hand on my shoulder as he looked into my eyes. “Mark, you’re such a caring, compassionate person. You’re so much like your mother. But I never thought you’d sink as low as you did. I should have realized the torment that was growing inside you. I never meant for you to come to hate yourself.”
“It’s not…your fault, Pa…” I breathed out quietly. I started to say more but Pa stopped me. “Mark let me finish. I’ve always stressed the importance that you think before you act. Words spoken can never be retracted…well, the same goes with one’s actions. I should have thought more about what you were going through, the day after Charlie died, but I was still so angry and embarassed that it was my rifle that killed a boy needlessly. I was furious that own my son had a part in causing a boy’s death.
I remained quiet while Pa talked.
“Mark?” I lifted my head to look into Pa’s eyes. “Son, when you finally opened up to me last night, you said some things that struck me…hard! You know, one’s never too old to make mistakes…and you made me see the truth. Son, I was right in making you dig the grave Sunday, but I was wrong in making you do it alone. When a man is grieving…like you were…the last thing he needs is to be alone…to allow his thoughts to wonder in directions they shouldn’t. I should have been there beside you, digging the grave for Charlie, so you could talk. I should have been the one to help guide you, to find a way to heal your heart and your soul, like your Mother did for me. I shouldn’t have left you alone, to fall into the despair that you did. I did a lot of remembering last night after you fell asleep. I remembered the importance of talking with God and seeking forgiveness, but first your Ma had to get me to forgive myself.”
Pa put his other hand on my other shoulder. I saw the hurt in his eyes. “Son…I…I should have realized the torment you were going through…and the fact that you’re not a full-grown man. You needed your father’s guidance…I left it to the wrong father.
Mark, you said that Micah never made me dig a grave for any of the men I killed. The truth is, son, I HAVE indeed buried many of the men I killed – some on our own ranch. And each man a buried, I thought on the man’s past…who he was…where he came from…Why did he get to be who he was? Digging a grave is painful…it causes a man to think. Usually, I could tell myself that I was just in this man’s death. But at times, I wondered if I could have avoided it somehow. I wondered if…well, if I could have brought him in alive – maybe shot his leg or his gun hand or something. And sometimes, I think I could have. But there’s one grave, son…one that will always stick with me. The man I killed. I dug his grave. I insisted on it. And every time I took out a shovel full of dirt, I remembered what I had done…how I had allowed anger to overcome me. I buried that man and I never…ever forgot it. I learned the real value of life that day.”
Pa stood up and walked away from me. I looked up at him. “I guess I expected you to learn that same lesson. But I didn’t remember the complete lesson…I didn’t do it alone. Your mother walked with me to that graveyard. She stayed with me and read the Bible as I dug. She talked with me and consoled me. She forgave me, son. And…she helped me forgive myself,” Pa turned and walked back over to me. “I forgot that…as a family, we could work our way through anything. And for that…I apologize.”
Tears flowed freely down my cheeks as I listened to Pa. Deep down, I knew how much I had hurt him, but the hurt I had inflicted upon myself had been greater.
I watched as regret again filled his face. He looked down at his rifle. “Son, I do have my rifle with me more often than I have you – that’s true. Oh, I wish to God it wasn’t that way… that you could have been in both my arms all the time. I wish it weren’t a part of me and that I could put it down and never pick it up again. But I created my reputation and I have to live with those consequences…and in a sense, unfortunately, you do too. I know it’s going to take both of us a long time to get over this…but we will…together…as a family.” Pa looked at me and I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sure we can, if you’ll forgive yourself and me.
We heard Lou knock on the door to let us know she had brought us some sandwiches. I still felt a heavy burden. I could hardly stand the grief I was still feeling as Pa stood to go bring in the tray. After we finished our sandwiches, Pa asked, “Can you forgive me son?”
I hesitated. I didn’t feel Pa needed my forgiveness. He had nothing to be sorry about. I deserved the punishment I got – I deserved so much more! I deserved…I deserved… I deserved to die in Charlie’s place. “It should have been me…” I said suddenly.
Pa shot his head up. “WHAT?” The shock was evident in his voice. “Mark, WHAT?”
“It should have been me…not Charlie…I should have been the one to die!”
Pa suddenly dropped to his knees in front of me. He was crying. “No, son…NO!” He shook his head as I started crying as well. “Don’t EVER think that, Mark. It shouldn’t have been anyone! Yes, you played a part…a big part…in killing the boy, but it should not have been you, son. It shouldn’t have been Fred…and it shouldn’t have been Charlie!”
“NO!” I cried then. “NO! I don’t deserve to go on living while Charlie lies in that graveyard…” I flung my finger over my shoulder and pointed. “In that graveyard with all that dirt and rocks on top of him! He was innocent while I was guilty!”
“Oh Mark…Oh son…” Pa was weeping now. “You’ve GOT to fogive yourself, son! You’ve GOT to…” He clung to my arms as he looked deep into my eyes. “Can you forgive yourself, son?”
“No!” I cried. “I…I can’t!” I stood up and went to the window. “Pa…I KILLED a boy! I KILLED him! Pa, you don’t understand…there is a boy lying out there,” I was pointing out the window, “in a grave with dirt over him because of ME!”
“And Fred,” Pa reminded me.
“No, Pa. I take full responsibility! Fred didn’t know your rifle, but I did. You said it yourself, the man you killed didn’t know your rife, but you did.”
My heart ached. I couldn’t stand to talk anymore. I couldn’t stand to listen to Pa. I didn’t feel like I deserved anything. I sat on the bed with my back towards Pa. “You have to forgive yourself first, son. Once you’ve forgiving yourself, then you can accept God’s forgiveness…You have fed your body…”
Pa picked up a Bible from the stand. “Now it’s time to…feed your soul.”
“No!” I cried. “I don’t deserve forgiveness from the Tanners. I don’t deserve forgiveness from you and most of all I don’t deserve His forgiveness!” I jumped up and ran across the room. I had to make him see the truth… “I should be the one in that grave!” I yelled as I placed my palms to the window sill and leaned into them as I looked out the window, towards the cemetery. I had to get him to understand, I didn’t deserve anything but death. Everyone would be so much better off without me around.
“No Mark! I love you! God loves you!” Pa stood up and ran to me. He grabbed me by the arms , turned me around, and stared hard in my face. “Don’t you know that God’s already seen everything you’ve done? Don’t you know he’s looking on the inside and he sees a loving, caring boy – the same one your mother would see if she were here?” Pa shook me gently.
“Leave my mother out of this!” I yelled back at him. “I’ve hurt her enough!” I couldn’t stop the tears that were falling down my face.
“Mark, God knows all! He knew that Mark McCain would need forgiveness a long time ago. A long time ago, he made a journey to take care of that for you. God gave his only son to forgive you for your sins. You know that! Remember that day in the cave when you were seven years old? You asked God to forgive you for your sins! You became his child that day.” Pa desperately stated as he picked up the Bible from where he had dropped it on the bed and held it out to me. “You are God’s son, Mark. And if your mother were here, she’d wrap her forgiving arms around you and lead you to this Bible.”
“You say my mother would forgive me? She gave me life and I gave her death!” My words and my thoughts turned even more distraught. “Look at the deaths I caused, Ma…Charlie…Vantine…” I couldn’t stop the tears from falling.
He put my hand on top of it. I yanked my hand away when I felt it’s warmth. “No!” I screamed. I ran back to the bed and threw myself down.
I think it was at that moment that Pa realized just how far I had allowed myself to fall and I came to realize later, just how much it tormented him.
“Mark!” Pa rushed over to me, he forced me to sit up. He flipped through the Bible and laid it down in my lap. He tapped the page. “Read it, son! READ IT!” He yelled.
“No!” I cried.
“What are you afraid of? You afraid you’re gonna find that you’ve been wrong this whole time? Is that what you’re afraid of?” Pa tapped the Bible again. “Read it!” He ordered loudly.
“I WAS wrong! I did sin, I murdered a boy! I…” I screamed.
Tears flowed from my eyes as I looked down at the sacred Book. I looked to Pa and I knew I couldn’t refuse, I was too exhausted. Nothing made sense anymore, I hurt so badly. I just wanted it all to stop! I stared at the words and read, “The Lord is my Sh…sh…shepherd I shall not want…He…He...” I began sobbing uncontrollably as I slowly slid off the bed and onto the floor. I drew my knees up to my chest and buried my head in my arms. I felt broken…totally and completely broken.
Pa sat down beside me with the Bible in his hand. In a soft, sacred voice he read:
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”
I began weeping even harder as Pa’s voice slowed. “Surely goodness…and MERCY…” Pa stopped and put a hand to my back. “Mercy, son…Mercy…shall follow me…all the days of my life…”
Pa stopped. He lifted my tear-stained face to look into his eyes. He had tears running down his cheeks as well. “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for..ever. Amen.” We said together.
Pa laid the Bible down and wrapped his arms around me. He held me in his arms and allowed me to cry. “That’s it, son…Let it all out…Come on…”
I cried for a long, long time. At times I cried so hard, it hurt to breathe, but I kept hearing Pa’s voice telling me to take slow, deep breaths. I let it all out. I felt all the anxiety…all the anger…all the bitter hatred leave my body. I suddenly felt an incredible peace fall over me as I finally said, “God forgive me!”
“That’s it, son…That’s it…Mark, God forgave you a long time ago. Now you can forgive yourself..”
In that moment, with my eyes closed I could see Ma and Pa on the floor of our home in Enid. Ma was holding Pa as he wept and asked for forgiveness. “I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I’m so very sorry!” I cried over and over.
“Hush now, son…” Pa smoothed my hair and spoke as if I were his little boy again. Maybe in some ways I was today. “Everything’s okay now.”
Then in my eyes, I saw Charlie. He passed a note to me that read, “I forgive you.”
The last piece of anger I had been holding onto suddenly fell from me. I lifted my head and gave a weak smile at Pa. He smiled back.
“I’ve never cried or hurt so much before in my life,” I quietly whispered.
“Neither have I son, neither have I,” Pa replied as he continued to hold me.
Pa sat on the bed and watched as I washed my face. I still felt defeated, but I knew I had finally hit rock bottom and with Pa by my side, I knew that he’d help me climb up.
“Mark, you’re becoming a man and I understand how hard life is for you right now, but to tie those three events together as you’ve done…”
I slowly turned around as I heard the quiet in the room.
“Your Ma’s death, Charlie’s death, and Vantine’s…Each was a separate event. The only death you could have prevented was Charlie’s.”
“But they all had one thing in common, me.” I told Pa.
“Commere Mark.” I walked over and sat down beside him, I still held the towel in my hand. “Mark, I know you’ve struggled the past few days, and how your mind came to tie all three events together as your responsibility, I’ll not say that I’ll understand. But believe me Mark, I’m going to do my best to understand. When we get home, we’ll spend a lot of time with the Bible and we’ll talk. Right now, what’s important is the fact that you have accepted the responsibility and forgiven yourself, and you no longer feel as if you want to die.“
“Pa, I didn’t really want to die,” I whispered.
“I know that son. It was your grief and the hate making you feel that way. That’s why your thoughts got twisted around, because of your refusal to forgive yourself. That’s why we needed today, to get you past the grief and the hate. To get you to forgive yourself, so you could accept God’s forgiveness, and return to being my son.”
But it wasn’t a hate for me, and I realize that now. It was a hate for what I had done. This was like a death…it would take a long time to get over it. Eventually, I’d come to accept the pain…because I knew it would always be there.
“How’s the food, Mark,” Lou asked as she hurried over to the table in the dining room.
“It’s really good!” I stated as I ate the last piece of steak. “Say, do you have any desert?”
“I baked some apple pie fresh this afternoon!” Lou declared.
“You baked…” I started. “Oh…” I groaned and looked at Pa. “Uh…How about chocolate cake?”
Lou slowly placed her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes at me. Pa chuckled as he saw the banter between us. “Uh…Mark, I think you’ll like the pie. She uh…changed the recipe.”
“Lucas McCain, you are…you are…impossible!” Lou declared. “And you will take the pie and you WILL eat every last morsel of it!”
We chuckled as she turned and hurried away. I sobered then. I had one last thing to say to Pa. “Uh…Pa?” Pa looked up at me. “I’ve been thinking about my rifle and…You were right in taking it from me and I don’t want it back.”
“Mark,” Pa took a sip of his coffee. “I’m not taking your rifle away from you permanently and I’m not going to put it away, son. I’m going to leave it in plain sight. And every day you see it, you’ll be reminded of the fact that it’s a tool. You’ll remember how a simple temper-flaring or a little mistake on our part can have lasting results. One day, and soon, you’ll come to accept it for what it is, your rifle.”
“I understand, Pa.” We smiled at each other. I yawned just then.
Pa wiped his face on the napkin. “Come on, let’s go home!”
“But Pa, what about the pie?” I asked, suddenly feeling like a little kid again.
Pa bent down next to my ear. “Do you really want to eat it?” he asked.
“Well, not…particularly!” I declared, still remembering the last time I tasted her apple pie.
“Then come on, let’s go!” Pa threw the money on the table, and then we rushed out the door! I laughed to myself as I thought on the reception Pa would get the next time he came into town!
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
The Anvil Chorus
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch