I stepped outside and filled my lungs with the fresh country air. I closed my eyes and smiled as the scent of blooming Marigolds, frying eggs, and manure filled the air. There was nothing better in the world! I knew today would be a great day! Spring planting was done and the crops were already growing. Three new calves had already been born and I had a whole new brood of chicks freshly hatched and following their mother around everywhere she went.
I stepped off the porch and walked to the back of the barn. Hearing tiny squeals, I looked into the pig pin and smiled. “Pa! Hey Pa!” I yelled.
Pa came running out the door as he usually did when I yelled for him. He threw the dishtowel over his shoulder and walked up. “What is-“ he started as he stood behind me. Then he stopped when he saw what I was looking att. “Oh.” I heard Pa smiled as his hands touched my shoulders and he pulled me back against his chest. “Wonderful!”
Pa and I smiled silently as we watched six little piglets suck milk from their mother as she lay sleeping. “The miracle of new life.” Pa looked up toward the sky. “It’s time like this when we can see the miracles of God.”
A tiny pig suddenly walked crying from behind it’s mother. “Oh no!” I cried. My sensitive heart always hated seeing things like this. I bent into the pen and picked the runt of the litter up. Looking up at Pa with my eyes pleading, I said, “Can I Pa?”
Pa sighed as he looked down into my eyes. “You ever gonna grow up?”
“Well, not if it means I can’t be sensitive to animals!” I declared. “You said Ma was sensitive to animals too, huh Pa?”
Pa smiled. “I remember right after we were married we had a colt who’s mother died giving birth. The colt was a scrawny little thing – not worth saving. But your mother…” Pa folded his arms as he remembered back. The pig started squealing in my arms and Pa shook his head. He put an arm around my shoulders. “Come on!” We started back to the house as he continued with his story. “Your mother took that colt in and fed that colt with a bottle. She got some milk and fed him every day – every couple of hours for the first few weeks! It was winter, so she’d make sure the colt stayed warm. Why, she worried and fretted for that colt – almost to the point of neglecting me!”
“Awwwww….I can’t see Ma neglecting you!” I declared as I carried the pig into the house. Pa had picked up a crate by the barn and lined the bottom with some hay. I sat the rambunctious piglet inside to make him a soft, bed. Pa reached way back in the shelf and got the bottle down to fill with milk.
“Well, I didn’t get fed as well anymore after that – at least until the colt was able to care for itself.”
I laughed. “Whatever happened to that colt?”
Pa turned from the sink where he was pouring the milk into the bottle and smiled at me. His eyes crinkled up at the corners and his lips turned up as dimples appeared in his cheeks. “I ride him every day.”
I suddenly looked towards the door. “You mean…” I gasped. “Razor was that scrawny little colt?”
“The very one,” Pa nodded with a grin.
“I’ll be!” I declared as Pa sat the eggs in front of me. “Wilickers!” Then I looked up. “I’ll feed him, Pa!”
“You,” Pa pointed at me. “Young man, have school!”
“Oh…Yeah.” I started to pick up my fork to eat.
“Wash your hands, Mark!”
“Oh, yes sir,” I said.
I ate my eggs as Pa tried to coax the new born piglet to eat. I laughed as I stood over Pa after my eggs were gone. Pa looked up at me and smiled. “He’s a hungry little fellow, I’ll give him that!” Pa declared with a shake of his head. “Go get ready for school.”
“Since I’m the one that wanted to save him, shouldn’t I be the one to care for him Pa?”
“Definitely,” Pa answered with a nod of his head. “That’s why you will be responsible for cleaning up after him and feeding him....AFTER school!” Pa turned. “And I expect your other chores and homework to be done as well.”
Pa put the pig back in the crate and stood up. “Well, he did good for his first try.” Pa put the bottle in the kitchen. “I’ll go hitch up the team.
“But Pa, I can ride Blue Boy to school.”
“Mark, I think Blue Boy is starting an abscess. I want Nils to pull his shoe and pare out the spot and let it drain overnight before the vet sees him tomorrow.”
I knew Blue Boy hadn’t felt alright when I rode him home yesterday, but was glad it was something as minor as an abscess. Not like when his leg swelled up and I was really worried about his tendon that time. I smiled as Pa started the wagon down the road. I kept looking over my shoulder, making sure Pa wasn’t going too fast for Blue Boy to keep up. As we rode, Pa asked me what we were studying in school. I told him “stuff,” and he gave me that look that told me he expected a better answer than that. I laughed, half-heartedly. “Well, I’m starting more advanced algebra. Mr. Griswald said I’m doing really well in math. In English Grammar, I’m learning all about diagramming sentences.”
“Oh,” Pa said. “How’s that going?”
I groaned. “Don’t ask.”
“I did.” Pa cleared his throat. “Mark, you know, there’s a reason you need to diagram sentences. It’s important to know where the different parts of a sentence goes – it helps you understand how to write a sentence.”
“Yeah. That’s what my teacher tells me every day when I-“ I stopped. I started to say complain, but I figured Pa didn’t want to hear that.
Pa pulled up in front of the General Store. “Son, I have a lot of work to do at home, but I’ll do my best to be her by 3. If I’m not, wait here!” Pa pointed a finger at me.
I nodded, then started walking slowly down the street. Pa was untying Blue Boy from the back of the wagon. “Mark!” I raced off toward school after that.
When I turned the corner to the church, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going and suddenly ran flat into someone. Things went flying everywhere! “Mark McCain!” I heard a female voice holler out. I looked up to see Lucille Bandy!
I hurriedly dropped to the ground and started picking up all her books. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
“Mark McCain, are you always so…so…clumsy?” I suddenly looked up. She stared into my eyes angrily. But then as her eyes began to focus on mine, I noticed the anger leave them and slowly turn into something else.
“I…I…” I started to speak, but for some reason the words wouldn’t leave my throat. “I…” My palms suddenly seemed sweaty and my throat felt like it was closing up. I sat back on my heels. “Oh my…” I said as I swallowed the lump in my throat.
Lucille continued to stare into my eyes. “I-I’m sorry, Mark. I shouldn’t have…have y-yelled,” Lucille said quietly. I watched her smile and fling her hair back off her shoulder. “Will you forgive me…Mark McCain?”
“Oh…” I swallowed as I grabbed her arm and helped her stand up. “Oh…my…Yes I will!” Suddenly, I realized how my words sounded. I felt my face growing warm. I looked down at my hand still wrapped around her upper arm. “I mean…” I let go of her and shrugged. “Sure.”
“Mark?” Lucille called as I picked up my books and swung them over my shoulder.
I turned back to her. “Uh huh?”
“Mark, I’m afraid my arm hurts a bit now. Would you mind…carrying them?” She held her books out for me.
I glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Then I looked down at the books. “Oh…sure,” I answered. I took them from her as we started walking. “I’m sorry for…hurting you.”
Lucille shook her hand. “Oh, I’m sure it’ll be better by the time I get home from school…or so.”
“I guess I was a little…” I moved my eyes toward her. I’m not sure why I wanted to impress her, but I suddenly found myself wanting it – no, needing it very much. “…distracted.”
“Distracted?” Lucille stopped working and turned to me.
I stopped too. “Oh yeah. I…” I cleared my throat as I started walking again. Lucille stayed beside me. “That is we…” I cleared my throat. Why was I having so much trouble talking around her? “Pa and me I mean…We have a new litter of piglets. They were born in the night and…well…” I stopped and hung my head.
“One of the piglets was born a runt. His Ma didn’t feed him so we had to take him in.”
Lucille’s eyes grew big. “You mean you…You’re caring for him?”
I nodded. “I can’t tell ya what usually happens to runts, what with you being a girl and all – ain’t proper.” I suddenly hit my forehead with the palm of my hand. “Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk like that!”
Lucille laughed. Her laugh was beautiful! I could see the school now. I was a bit disappointed. “I know what happens to runts. My uncle has a farm and I help him out in the summer time.”
I must say this surprised me! “You?” I asked.
Lucille nodded. “Well, as you know, I’m the only child of my folks, and my uncle had no children. So I’ve learned to do a lot of the boy things.”
I smiled. “Well, that’s great!” Suddenly I said, “Maybe you can come out to the ranch and see the runt.”
“Really?” Lucille laughed. “Why Mark! I’ll ask father at noon! I’m sure he’ll saddle my horse and allow me to go riding with you! As long as you bring me back before dark.”
“Oh no, I…” I should have known better then to speak so bluntly! Oh, me and my big mouth!
We were standing outside the school now. “Is…something wrong, Mark?”
“Oh. No,” I said. “I-“
“Are you two going to join us today?” I heard Mr. Griswald call out just then. I was never happier to see anybody in my whole life! I handed Lucille her books and hurried up the stairs.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Griswald asked us to get out our English Grammar homework. I shook my head, knowing how my sentence diagramming had gone the night before. I opened my tablet up to tear out the homework and stared at the beautifully printed diagrams. My mouth popped open and my eyes grew big. I couldn’t stop staring at the perfectly diagramed sentences.
Then my face reddened as I began to realize what Lucille was looking at. I bet she was wondering what it was – much less what it said! It suddenly felt very hot in here. “Mr. McCain?” I looked up to see Mr. Griswald holding out his hand.
I swallowed. “Y-Yes sir?”
“Do you…have your homework?” I saw his eyes narrow as if he were challenging me to say no. I licked my lips and began breathing heavy. My palms started getting sweaty and my heart raced.
“I have it, sir,” Lucille spoke up. “Mark has mine.”
“Oh no!” I covered my face with my hand and slid down in my desk. I wished the floor would open and swallow me whole. I felt the other kids staring at me. Without uncovering my face, I handed Mr. Griswald Lucille’s tablet. He gave me mine.
“Mr. McCain?” I uncovered my face and looked up. My face was still hot. He held out his hand. “Your…homework!”
I hardly felt my hand move as I ripped the page from my tablet and handed it to him. Billy snickered beside me. I didn’t even turn to look at him – I couldn’t!
“Well, now that everyone’s tablets are in the right place again…” Mr. Griswald started. Suddenly, Jeff cracked up laughing. Before I knew it, the other kids in class were laughing also. I really wanted to die then! Mr. Griswald banged his stick on the podium. “Class, that’s enough!”
The rest of the morning passed rather…uncomfortably. I felt several eyes on me. When Mr. Griswald dismissed us for recess, I slowly walked outside. A bunch of the kids were together. I turned away from then and raced to the outhouse – where I stayed for twenty-two minutes. I knew I’d be in trouble with the teacher, but I wanted to avoid the boys’ teasing. That got me through until lunch time. At lunch time, I walked outside to see Lucille racing to town.
“Well, well, well…” Jeff said as he folded his arms and started walking around me. “If it ain’t Mark McCain, the love bird!”
I clinched my fists at my side and closed my eyes. “Now Jeff, I’ve had myself a morning and I ain’t in no mood to listen to your mouth!” I declared.
Jeff laughed at me. “Lucille is certainly dreamy, huh Mark?” Jeff shook his head. “You know, you should be careful when carrying her books to school! You may go home with the wrong books!” He laughed again. “Or maybe…maybe I’ll let her carry my books. Maybe I’ll carve her initials on that tree down there!” Jeff laughed out loud.
“Jeff Connors, I’m warning you!” I said through clinched teeth.
“Why, I bet you ain’t the first boy she’s kissed!”
That was it! I turned and punched him right in the mouth! Jeff and I rolled around in the dirt for awhile. Then he got up to run from me. I grabbed his foot and jerked him back to the ground. He punched me in the jaw again. I stood up and started to punch him. “Mark!” I heard Lucille shout. She must have run back while we were fighting.
I held my fist up ready to punch him. Jeff and I stared at each other. Our eyes held anger. Suddenly, I bolted forward and pinned him to the ground. “You take back what you said!” I demanded. “Right now, Jeff Connors!”
Jeff laughed. I held up my fist. “You want it? Do you?”
Jeff began flailing his hands around. “Alright! Alright! I take it back!”
I stood up angrily and picked up my hat. Slapping it against my leg a couple times I turned and saw the faces of some of the other boys. “Say anything about this, and I’ll take you on!” I challenged them.
I hurried to the back to wash my face. It wasn’t long before Lucille was back there. She leaned against the wall of the schoolhouse and played with her fingers as I finished my washing. “I heard you were defending my honor.”
I couldn’t keep from rolling my eyes. “Where’d you hear something like that at?”
“Kids are talking about it.” Lucille smiled at me. “Thanks, Mark. Father says your Pa’s one of the greatest men he’s ever met.” She pushed herself off the wall and walked towards me. “I can see you are one of the greatest boys in school.” She wiped a drop of blood off my chin where I’d missed it and smiled. “Father said I can go see your piglet after school.” She started inside. Turning, she flashed me a smile. “Bye…Mr. McCain.”
If you asked me, I’d say she’s read too many of those magazines girls read! But her words and actions left me speechless. “I’d rather go fishing,” I said as I threw the towel down. But this time, I said it with less confidence. Because this time, I wasn’t sure if I’d rather go fishing!
The afternoon passed quickly – perhaps too quickly. After school, I gathered up my books and strapped them tight. I certainly didn’t want them being mixed up with Lucille’s again! As we climbed down the steps, some of the boys stared. I’d walked and talked with Lucille many times before I turned thirteen and the boys never thought twice about it. But now, it seemed to be a crime or something.
We walked quietly side-by-side as we walked into town. I went to the Livery to check on Blue Boy. Nils shook his head. Blue Boy would have to spend the night. “He’s a beautiful horse, Mark,” Lucille commented as she nuzzled his nose.
“He was a gift to me from my Pa’s cousin. He died not long after I moved here and his last words were for me to have this horse.” I smiled as I petted him. “I had just lost another colt my father bought for me – it was the first one I’d ever had that I could call my very own…you know?” I turned to her. She stared at me intently. I looked away. “Anyway, Chuck…” I turned and smiled. “That was our cousin’s name… He helped me deal with the emotions I felt – some bad toward my father for killing my colt. He helped me to understand what it meant to let go of something you loved. And that if you really love someone – sometimes, you have to do painful things for their good. My Pa loved me, but he had to teach me a hard lesson.”
Lucille listened without interrupting. “He…shot your colt?”
I nodded. “Duster stumbled and broke his leg. I realize now how hard it was for Pa. I begged him not to.” It made me sad now just thinking about it. I turned and looked at Lucille. She was crying.
I cleared my throat. “I’m…sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“That’s what I want for my birthday.”
Her sudden soft, emotional voice distracted me…from everything. “What?”
Lucille smiled. “A colt. I’ve never…had one of my very own either.” She reached out a hand to Blue Boy again. “I can see why he’s special.” We looked at each other for another moment. I glanced down at the ground. “I’m sorry those boys teased you today, Mark.”
I shrugged. “It’s okay. I…” I sighed. “I think I got my point across.”
I then lifted my head and looked at her. Her lips turned up at the corners as she tried to hold her laughter in, but it bubbled out like a brook after a spring rain. I watched as her smile spread. Soon laughter escaped her mouth. I couldn’t help but laugh with her. “You …sure…did!” She declared.
We turned and started out of the stable. Our laughter continued to ring out. “You want some candy?” I asked. She nodded as her laughter slowly died.
When I went inside, Pa was there. I saw Milly hurry to the other side of the counter with a blush on her face. I turned and smiled at Lucille. I think we’d interrupted something. “I told you to meet me here.”
“I…I’m sorry, Pa.” I looked at Lucille. “I went to check on Blue boy.”
“Oh.” Pa cocked his head to one side. “Hello, Lucille.”
Lucille lowered her head. “Hello, Mr. McCain. Nice day.”
“Yes. I guess it is at that.” Pa looked from me to her, then at Milly. I saw a grin exchanged between the adults. I felt a blush creeping on my face again.
I walked to the candy. “I was going to get Lucille some candy.”
“Jelly beans,” she smiled. “I like jelly beans.”
“Nickel’s worth, Milly.” I started to dig the nickel from my pocket. It wasn’t there. “It was here this morning.”
“I bet it fell out at lunch when you and Jeff were…” Lucille looked towards Pa. “Well…you know.”
I closed my eyes. Pa walked up behind me and slapped the nickel on the counter. Nothing was said as I thanked Milly for the candy and we walked out of the store. “Oh Pa, uh…” I turned to Lucille. “Lucille wants to see the piglet. He’s still…”
Lucille smiled. “Mark told me he’s a runt. He didn’t die, did he?”
Pa chuckled. I’m not sure if he was laughing about Lucille or laughing at me or…having fun at my expense. Whatever the case, I glared at him. Pa quickly cleared his throat and lost the smile. “No, he’s still alive.”
Lucille turned and looked at me. “Well…I’ll have to ride along side you. I’ll-“
“Why don’t you hop on up in the buckboard with us, Lucille. Mark can bring you back in a couple hours…After supper.”
I gasped at the thought of having to eat at the same table as Lucille! I’d already embarrassed myself plenty. “Oh, that’s so thoughtful! Thank you!” Lucille nodded. “I’ll go tell Father.”
Pa walked up behind me and put an arm around my shoulder as Lucille ran down the street. I folded my arms and shook my head. “Now why’d you have to go and do that for, Pa?”
Pa looked down at me. “Do what?”
“Invite her for supper! Why, I’ve already been through quite a day with her – all cause I accidently bumped into her behind the church this morning!”
“Accidently?” Pa asked with a grin in his voice.
“Yeah. I didn’t see her. I-“ Pa chuckled. “What?”
“Son,” Pa said as he placed a hand on my shoulder and led me to the wagon and we climbed up. “You have a lot to learn about the female persuasion!” He clucked the horses and we started toward Lucille’s house.
“What are you talking about, Pa?”
Pa smiled as he shook his head. “Well, let’s just say that that run-in this morning, might not have been an accident!”
I sat back and thought on what Pa said and turned to look at the road where Lucille had gone. Then I turned and looked at Pa. Suddenly, the realization hit me. “No, s-she couldn’t, she wouldn’t!”
“Oh, but she could and would, son!”
Boy did I have a lot to learn. Maybe I should have played hooky and gone fishing, or at least, stayed at Nils and tended to Blue Boy. Oh, why do girls have to be so complicated?
Lucille laughed as she sat on the floor by the fireplace and nuzzled the piglet’s little face with her nose. “Oh Mark, he’s so cute…and so little!” She held the piglet in her lap and took the bottle Pa held out for her. We watched as Pa walked back to the kitchen to finish supper. “What are you going to name him?”
“Well, I-“ I started.
“He’s not!” Pa answered sternly from the kitchen.
I ran my finger against the piglet’s back. “Nothing wrong with naming him. We name dogs and horses.”
“You don’t raise them for ham and sausage either,” Pa answered. He poked his head around the wall of the kitchen. Do I need to remind you what happened the last time you named a pig?”
I laughed as Lucille gave me a questioning look. “He’s talking about Henrietta.” I shook my head. “We raised her for slaughter, but I became so attached to her that I couldn’t bear to let Pa do it. Pa sold her to Miss Denton in town.” I started thinking on her. “Hey Pa, whatever happened to Henrietta?”
Pa again poked his head around the wall. “You uh…really want to know?”
I looked at Lucille. She raised her eyebrows at me. “Uh…no. I don’t think I do,” I answered. Lucille snickered.
I laughed as the piglet began drinking from the bottle. “Looks like you have the touch.”
Lucille smiled as she looked up at me. “I’ve done this before. I’ve nursed cows, pigs, and even some baby birds once. I love animals and have a big heart for them – especially those unfortunate one’s who many cast aside.” Lucille laughed as the piglet continued his sucking. “Why, I even nursed a fawn after his mother was shot.
It happened right behind our house!”
“Really?” I smiled. “Well now, that’s something!”
Lucille nodded. ‘Only, with wild animals you have to be really careful. You don’t want to tame them or they’ll never survive in the wilderness. My fawn…I hope she’s still running free out there in the woods.”
I studied her face. There was so much concern for this little piglet on there. “I never knew that about you.”
Lucille looked into my eyes and smiled. “Well, I…” She gave a short laugh. “I figure if you kids knew how I felt, you’d make fun of me.”
“I don’t think it’s something to laugh at,” I stated. “My mother was like that. Pa told me she was always bringing home unfortunates when she was a kid growing up.”
“Really Mark? You really wouldn’t fun me?”
“Oh no, Lucille! I would never fun you!”
“That Jeff Connors at school today.” Lucille went back to studying the piglet as she spoke. “You fought him because of some things he said about me, huh?”
I nodded. “Nobody – no matter who they are – should ever had something like that said about them.. He deserved what he got.”
“I didn’t like seeing you getting hurt. And then when I found out it was on my account, well…You didn’t have to, Mark. Jeff’s just a talker, you know.”
“Yeah! Not much of a fighter! That’s for sure!” We both laughed. Pa walked from the kitchen and stood behind us. My laugh died when I saw his face.
“Don’t forget your chores and homework, son.”
“Oh, I have company now, Pa. I-“
Lucille took the bottle from the piglet’s mouth. “That’s enough for now, Charlie.” She kissed the top of his head and gently laid him in the crate. “Mark will feed you again in a few hours.” She stood up. I stood up with her. “Mark, I noticed on those diagramed sentences today that you had a little trouble. If you want, I could help you while your Pa’s fixing supper.”
“Really?” I turned and looked at Pa. Pa nodded. “Why, sure!” We went to sit down by the table.
“Charlie?” I heard Pa mumble from the kitchen. “Well, maybe I can sell this one too.”
Lucille grabbed my grammar book and opened my ledger. “Okay, let’s start with an easy one.” She looked through the book. “Let’s do this one: “Steve ran fast.”
She drew a straight line across the page and divided it in half. “Okay, Steve is the subject.” She looked at me and I nodded my understanding. She wrote ‘Steve’ on the left side of the page. “What did Steve do?”
“Ran,” I answered.
“Okay. She wrote “ran” on the right side of the line. “So, does ‘fast’ describe Steve or ran?”
“Ran,” I answered.
She drew a slanted line under ran. There she wrote fast.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
She nodded. “That’s it!”
“Well then, alright!” I declared. I turned to Pa who raised an eyebrow at me and shook his head. He had tried explaining that to me last night. But the way Lucille explained it…well…it made more sense somehow.
We worked hard for the next 45 minutes or so on our homework. By the time Pa told me to set the table, I had the diagramming thing down pretty well.
Pa has some rules around the house. One of them is that when we bless the food, we hold hands. Now, I can’t recall ever complaining on this before, but tonight I’d hoped he would pass that rule up. But when he bowed his head, he automatically took my hand on one side and Lucille’s on the other. I took Lucille’s hand with a bit of hesitation. “Bless us oh God for this food. May it be nourishing to our bodies. Bless our guest and the blessing she has brought us on her visit. Amen.”
I didn’t waste any time in taking my hand out of Lucille’s grasp. We ate silently for a few minutes. “This is good chicken and dumplings, Mr. McCain,” Lucille stated.
Pa smiled. “Thanks, Lucille. Milly fixed them. I just had to warm them up.”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “We seem to eat better now that Miss Milly’s here. She cooks stuff and sends it home for us to warm up. Says she wants to make sure I get my nourishment.” Lucille smiled. “But Pa can cook a plenty from scratch. He did make this cornbread.”
“Can you cook?” I asked.
“Very well. Mother taught me. Can’t every girl cook, Mark?”
“Well, I-“ I shook my head. I decided to stay clear of that question for the time being. I took another bite. “We best hurry. Sun’s going down early.”
Pa turned and looked out the window. He turned back and looked at me. I met his smiling eyes. The sun was still high in the sky. He knew I was ready for this evening to end.
Pa sat back in his chair. “Milly baked a cherry cobbler, son.” Pa cleared his throat. “You uh…won’t leave without a piece, will you son?”
“Oh no, Pa.” I looked to Lucille. “You like…cherry pie?”
“Oh yes, Mark! Very much,” Lucille answered.
So we waited until after the cherry pie. Then I stood and took the dishes to the sink. “You go saddle the Sorrel, son. I’ll take care of these dishes tonight.”
I hurried out to the barn and saddled the Sorrel. Then I saddled the blackie. I’d have to ride the blackie since he wasn’t as gentle. It had only been since I turned thirteen that Pa allowed me to ride it. I was soon all ready. I went in to get Lucille.
When I got inside, Lucille was holding the piglet. She turned and smiled at me. Then she kissed the piglet on top of his head and laid him down in the box. She hurried toward the door. “Oh, thank you, Mr. McCain, for having me for supper.”
“You are welcome, Lucille.” Pa folded his arms and watched as she walked out the door I held open for her. I turned and looked at Pa. “Be back before dark, son.” I nodded. “Oh, and uh…have fun.”
I rolled my eyes then walked out the door. I could hear Pa’s laugh as I closed the door and mounted my horse.
We rode down the road without talking for awhile. Lucille finally cleared her throat and said, “I’ll be thirteen come Saturday.”
“Oh?” I didn’t say anything.
“Mark?” Her voice sounded over the rhythmic clip-clop of the horses.
“Mark, have you ever been to a birthday party?” I nodded. “If I invited you, would you come?”
I slowed the horse down a bit. “Uh…uh…to your party?”
“Yes. It’s tomorrow night.” Lucille sighed. “Would you, Mark?”
“Well, I…” I sighed. “I don’t know. I…” I swallowed. Oh boy! Boy oh boy! “Uh…maybe if I was invited…I’d have to check with my Pa.”
We were coming to her place now. It was only five minutes from town and I was very interested in getting back home. “Well, maybe I’ll invite you.”
She climbed off the horse. I watched as her father walked up to us. “Father, can Mark come to my party tomorrow night?”
Mr. Bandy smiled. “Well, I…” I cocked his head to one side and studied me. “It’s your party, sweetheart.”
“See you in school tomorrow, Mark!”
“Yeah. I’ll…” I swallowed…hard! “I’ll see you in school.”
I wondered if she’d be around the church ready to bump into me again! Oh, boy, what had I gotten myself into? Maybe Pa would say no. That’s it!
When I got home, Pa walked out of the barn and took the horses from me. “You go work on your chores, son. I’ll put the horses up.”
“Yeah,” I groaned. “Pa?” Pa turned and looked at me. “Pa…Are women really necessary?”
Pa cleared his throat and chuckled. “Well son, remember the talk we had a few months back when Lucille first started er…noticing you?” I nodded. “And you started noticing her?” I nodded again. “Well, just remember without women, there’d be no Mark.”
“Yeah.” I shook my head. “But when will I understand them?”
“NEVER!” Pa declared. “You just learn to…tolerate them.”
“Like Milly?” I asked.
Pa laughed. “You quote me on that, and I’ll tan your hide for sure!” He led me to the porch and sat down. “No son, you never learn to understand them really…but it works both ways. They never learn to understand us either. God made woman so man wouldn’t be lonely. He knew there was something inside us…inside every man…that only a woman can fill. But he made them different from us for a reason. As you grow older, son, things will begin to make more sense. You’ll learn to love a woman for her differences.”
“Like you loved Ma?”
Pa nodded. “Yes.” He smiled lovingly “Like I loved Ma.”
“And like you love Milly?” I asked then.
Pa raised his eyebrows and cleared his throat. “Mark, go do your chores!” I felt a hard smack on my back side as I got up to go.
After my chores and homework were done, I picked up the piglet – Charlie – and sat down by the fire as I tried to give him some more from his bottle. Pa came inside and closed the door. He sat down in his chair and picked up the Bible. “Time to turn in, son.”
“Yes sir,” I answered. I carried the piglet and started toward the bedroom.
“Mark, what in heaven’s name are you doing?”
I turned and looked at Pa. “I’m…going to bed!”
“Not with that think you aren’t!” Pa declared. “Put him back in the crate!”
“Oh, but Pa! He’s just a new born – not even 24 hours old yet and he misses his Ma! Charlie needs somebody. You can’t expect Charlie to just sit out here in the dark by himself all night!”
“Oh yes I can!” Pa declared. “Now, put Charl-“ Pa sighed and closed his eyes. “Put that piglet back in the crate and get to bed.”
I started for the bedroom again after doing Pa’s bidding. But Pa called to me as I started inside. ‘Oh Mark?”
I turned to look at him. “Son, I admire the fact that you want to fight for Lucille’s honor. That’s very commendable, son. But I want to know – did you have to fight?”
I swallowed. “No sir. I…I lost my temper.”
“Sometimes it’s better to uh…walk away.” Pa raised his eyebrows at me. “You understand me?”
I nodded. “You don’t want me to get into any more fights at school over a girl.”
Pa nodded. “That’s pretty much it.”
I sighed and shook my head. “Darned if you don’t…darned if you do…”
“What was that?”
As I laid down in bed that night, I couldn’t help but utter the single word again. “Girls!”
I fell asleep shortly after that. When I got up the next morning, I begged Pa to let me ride the Sorrel or the blackie to school. Pa laughed and told me that Blue Boy should be set to ride home this evening. “Well, could you at least ride me all the way to school?
“Sure, son.” Pa chuckled.
I shook my head. “I just don’t understand it,” I stated as I picked up my books.
Pa picked up his rifle as we started out the door. “What now, son?” Pa asked with a smile.
“Well…I’ve faced rattle snakes and outlaws, but a little going-on-thirteen girl and I’m terrified!”
Pa chuckled. “It’s the way of the world son…It’s the way of the world!”
I made it all the way to lunch time without hearing a thing from Lucille. Then she was there, holding out a cookie. “I baked them last night, Mark.”
I smiled. She had been in pants last night and now here she was back in a dress. Her hair flowed down her back and a smile lit up her face. “Sure.” I reached for the cookie. “Thanks.”
I took a bite of the cookie. “Oh, he’s…you know…a pig.” I took another bite. “Oh, and uh…if I were you, I wouldn’t call the piglet Charlie in the presence of my Pa.”
“Why not? That’s his name!” She shrugged.
“Yeah. Well, trust me on this, Lucille.”
“Oh, I have something else for you.” She gave me an envelope. I started to stuff it in my pocket. “Open it, Mark.”
I nodded and looked around. I read the front of the envelope. It had my name on it in fancy writing. Inside was a note.
“Lucille Bandy cordially invites you to a birthday part to be held in her honor on Friday, May 5 at 7:30 pm.
Refreshments will be served.”
I folded the note up and stuffed it into my pocket. She did it! She really did it! “Well, Mark?”
“Well…what?” I asked.
“How many other guys are coming to your party?” I asked then.
“Oh, just a couple cause my father made me. I didn’t want to invite any, but he said it would be too awkward for you if I didn’t.” She could say that again! “Mark, Mother is fixing cake and cookies and…” She bashfully looked my way. “Ice Cream.”
“Well, I don’t know if my Pa would let me,” I answered.
“Won’t he, Mark?” I could tell from the tone in her voice that she knew Pa would let me.
“Uh…” I sighed and finished off the cookie in my mouth. “Alright, Lucille. I’ll be there.”
“Really, Mark?” Lucille stood up. She had a great big, winning smile on her face.
I was glad when she walked away. Billy walked over to me and sat down. “You going to Lucille’s birthday party?”
“Are you?” I asked. Billy nodded. “Me and Tommy were the only two boys invited besides you.”
I nodded. “She told me she didn’t invite too many.” The bell rang. I was glad to go back in and study. I can’t believe I was thinking that!
When Mr. Griswald dismissed us, Lucille hurried up to me. “Ya going into town, Mark?”
“Yep. I’m picking up Blue Boy,” I answered.
“Well, I have to go home and get ready for my party. Mother bought me a dress all the way from Santa Fe just for this occasion. It’s pink and white checkered. She bought a matching ribbon for my hair too. I can hardly wait!” Lucille started to hurry off. But she stopped suddenly and turned around. “Oh, and make sure you wear a tie!”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “A-“ I swallowed. “A tie???”
“Of course! Wear your Sunday best!” Lucille answered.
“Oh, now Lucille, I-“ I started. I didn’t much care wearing my Sunday best on Sunday. The only reason I did it was because Pa made me. I told Pa when I grew up, I’d never wear a tie – ever again! Now that I was growing up, the first girl who invites me to a party insists on my wearing a tie!”
“Now Mark McCain, don’t you think I’m important enough for your Sunday best?” She asked.
I sighed. I turned and opened my mouth to report just what I though of that idea. But then I saw her and what my wearing a tie meant to her. I sighed. I didn’t understand how a young filly like this could have such a hold on me! She made me want to do things that I didn’t want to do! “Alright. I’ll wear…a tie!”
I raced off down the street to the livery. I didn’t want anyone to know this, but I was sort of excited about going to Lucille’s party. I would have been a lot more excited, though, if I wasn’t so dog gone nervous! I walked inside to see Blue Boy all saddled up. Nils approached me and looked at me strangely. “Mark, are you okay?”
Hope stirred in my heart along with disappointment. “Why? Do I look sick?” Maybe Pa would say no after all – especially if I looked sick. Usually at the first sight of sickness, Pa demanded I get into bed.
“Well no,” Nils answered. “You look…green.”
“Oh,” I answered. “Yeah…green.”
Nils handed me the bill. “Well, he’s all in good shape, Mark. Just take it easy on him tonight.”
I pocketed the bill and patted my friend on the back as we took off for home. As I rode along, I tried to put sense to all that had happened to me the last couple of days. “Oh Blue Boy, don’t you ever get mixed up with a girl! They’re nothing but trouble. Why, take Lucille for instance. I don’t know if I like her or not. I don’t know if I want her to like me or hate me. I don’t know if I want to go to her birthday party or go fishing. You know what the sad part is, Blue Boy?” I listened to his silence. All I heard was the clip-clop of his hooves. I sighed heavily. “I think I’d rather go to this party – tie and all – then to…to…go fishing. And that’s terrible!”
I rode into the yard some time later. Pa met me outside and took Blue Boy from me. “I have your bath all ready for you in the barn, son. Go ahead and get bathed and I’ll bring your clothes out to you.”
“A bath?” I asked. “On a Friday night?”
“Well, you are going to Lucille’s birthday party tonight, right?”
I shook my head. “Pa, how do you know that?” I was shocked and a bit put off that Pa was so willing to let me go.
Pa laughed as he started out of the barn. “Pa’s just know these things!” Pa laughed. “And uh…you told me she asked you about going last night in a panic…remember?”
I did remember! The moment I got home, I ran to Pa and told him what Lucille had gone and done! Pa had listened to my panicked story in silence. Then when I stopped, he patted my on the shoulder and said, “Now son, I suffered through it, and I hand it down to you now!” Then he sent me off to do my chores! Oh, the humiliation!
Pa stuck his head back around the corner of the barn as I started undressing. “Oh, I ran into Mr. Bandy today and we had a nice…talk.”
I hurried out to him, but Pa just twirled his finger around, telling me to get back inside. I took a bath, wishing I could stay in there long enough to catch just the smallest of sniffles that would make Pa order that I stay home tonight. My Pa was that way – very protective of me when I showed the slightest sign of being sick. But, no such luck! I got out of the tub and hurriedly dressed as Pa dumped the water. Then I slipped on my jacket and grabbed my tie. Pa raised an eyebrow at me. He’d never seen me voluntarily reach for a tie before. “I want to look nice,” I declared. Pa just shook his head and walked away.
There was no way I was EVER going to tell ANYBODY that a…girl…was MAKING me wear a tie! No way!
I fussed with my tie in the mirror for a long time but couldn’t get it straight. Pa watched with his arms folded and a small grin on his face. He could tie his tie without a mirror and quickly. I seemed to be all thumbs when I tried! Pa finally turned me around and straightened my tie. “Don’t worry, son. Your mother tied my tie for me many times. I got the hang of it long after she was gone.” He straightened it and smiled. “Now, you look really nice. A real gentleman. You …uh…remember that you are one tonight, huh?”
“Oh Pa!” I raised my eyes and blushed a bit. “It’s just a dumb ol’ birthday party.”
“Is it?” Pa smiled as he put his hands on both sides of my shoulder. “I’ve never seen you primp this much for a birthday party before. What about a gift?”
“A…gift?” I asked. I was suddenly mortified! How could I show up without a gift?” Pa studied me, then walked over to the table and handed me a nicely wrapped gift. “Stopped by Milly’s. She said this would be perfect.”
I studied the box as if it were a snake. “What is it?” I could just myself being embarrassed when she opened it to reveal some female thing!
Pa smiled. “It’s a book, Mark. Relax!” I took the gift from Pa. We stood there looking at each other – both lost in our thoughts at what this evening meant. I looked down at the floor suddenly nervous. “You know son, this day is just as big for me.”
“Oh?” I asked. I didn’t see him breaking out into a sweat or so nervous he couldn’t do anything.
“Mm,” Pa answered with a nod. “You see son, today I watch my son take another step into manhood, but this time it’s a big step. It’s like a lamb stepping into a den of lions.”
“Oh.” Boy, he sure knew how to make a fellow feel better!
Pa pulled out a chair and sat down. “Sit down, here, son.”
I sat with some relief. I wasn’t sure what was holding my shaking knees up. Pa put a hand on my arm as he smiled at me. “It’s a whole new world for you, Mark. It’s a good world – but a hard one. Up to now, you’ve focused on fishing and friendship. Now you are learning that girls are…well, taking the place of fishing.” Pa cocked his head to one side. “Am I right?” I nodded. That’s exactly what I was scared of. Pa lowered his head with a sigh, then looked back up at me. “Well son, the feelings you experience are feelings that every man…and woman…experience during their growing up time. This is an exciting time, but a rough time for you. I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”
I swallowed as I thought on this. “Girls are more complicated then…well, then school!”
“That’s because you want to make her happy, son. You want to learn about her and it scares you. Yes. Girls are complicated. But don’t you think they have just as much trouble figuring you out?” I nodded. “Just remember, son. You’re only thirteen. Don’t hurry this along. Don’t try to push feelings before they are ready and you are mature enough to accept them. I’ve taught you good manners over the last 13 years. I know you’ll remember them.”
I nodded. I saw tears suddenly fill Pa’s eyes. He stood and started toward the door. “Pa?” Pa turned and looked at me. “I-“ I lowered my eyes to the floor for a moment. “I still need you. I won’t be a full-grown man for several years yet. You’re still the…the most important person in my life.”
Pa turned and walked toward me. He smiled at me then suddenly pulled me into a hard embrace. Then he pulled me away and looked at me with a smile. He laid a hand on my cheek. “You grew up so fast, son. You’re mother would be so proud.”
Then we walked out the door, mounted our horses, and rode toward town.
The closer we got toward town, the louder my heart pounded. Just outside town, I looked up the path toward the Bandy farm and stopped. As usual, Razor stopped when Blue Boy did. Pa looked in the direction I was looking. “You act like a great big monster’s just waiting in the shadows of that house,” Pa declared as he smacked my horse to move on toward town.
I said nothing as we got off our horses just outside the General Store. Milly came out and smiled at me. Micah walked up to us from across the street at the same time. “Well Mark, you look mighty handsome tonight!” Milly said. “All ready for Lucille’s party?”
I looked up at Pa and gave him an annoyed expression. “What?” Pa asked. “I was just in the store earlier, and it just sort of…came up…in conversation.” Pa winked at Milly.
“Tie and everything, huh? Well, it must be some sort of party!” Micah declared.
I shrugged. “I just thought I’d wear a tie. That’s all.” Then I started for the hotel. “We best eat.”
Pa and Micah were talking business. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I knew Micah had some big criminal cooped up in his jail, and normally I would care – but I’d seemed to have bigger things on my mind the last few days. I vaguely heard Pa and Micah ordering their food. Boy, but it was getting hot in this room! I felt like I was about to sweat as I pulled at my stupid tie.
I heard Pa ask me if I was going to order anything before I hung myself with my tie. I was in no mood for jokes! This was a serious time, and I was ready to get it over with! “Gosh, no Pa…I…I don’t wanna spoil my appetite!”
Pa reminded me it wasn’t going to be a real supper there. But it terrified me to think of going over there and being too full to eat all that stuff. Why, I was so nervous, I even told Pa ice cream was new stuff! What was I thinking! That’s just it – I wasn’t thinking…I couldn’t think…Why was I doing this?
Boy, was it getting hotter in here? I tugged at my tie some more. “Just cuz I’m goin’ to Lucille Bandy’s birthday party…I…I don’t see why I have to wear a tie!” There, my true feelings were out!
“I thought the tie was your idea,” Micah suddenly piped up. It was then that I remembered they didn’t know the truth. I didn’t want them to know the truth either!
“Do I look alright?” I suddenly asked. Boy, but I was nervous!
“Fine…Fine…” Micah complimented me.
Boy, now my mouth suddenly felt dry! I picked up the water with my hands a shaking and drank the whole glass.
“What are you so nervous about?” Pa suddenly asked.
“Who’s nervous?” I asked quickly. “What time is it?” I then asked Micah.
It was ten minutes to seven. Forty minutes! Forty…long…minutes! “Well, I better get going,” I said nervously.
“Mark, the party is no ‘til seven thirty. Only takes five minutes to get there,” Pa declared.
I knew that! Didn’t he know I knew that! “I know, but I don’t’ wanna be late!” I couldn’t stand all the sitting around. It was making everything worse! I stood and hurried toward the door. I needed some fresh air…and fast!
“Mark? Didn’t you forget something?” Pa suddenly asked.
I grabbed my hat. Pa held up the present. Oh, how could I forget the present? Pa gave me a funny look. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was rather enjoying this! “Have a good time, son.”
I turned to leave, but suddenly I came back over to Pa. In a low voice, I spoke close to his ear.. "Pa...how come girls make fella's feel like...well, you know...all butterflies inside? Even worse than the first time you try to rope a calf."
"Well Mark…” Pa started as he tried to come up with a good answer. “I guess the best way to explain it is that.....with girls it's knowin' that you might get roped back.” I was hoping he’d make me feel better – but he only made things worse. Because then, I began to wonder if I wanted roped back…“Have a good time son." From the sound in Pa’s voice, I’d say he and Micah were going to have a good laugh!
I hurried out to my horse, mounted, and rode slowly…very slowly…out of town. But no matter how slowly I rode, I still found myself at the road leading up to the Bandy farm. I sighed as I dismounted Blue Boy. “Well boy, what do you think?” Blue Boy whinnied in reply. “Yeah. I agree,” I said as we slowly started down the path to Lucille’s house.
I tied Blue Boy to the hitching post then started toward the door. The door flew open and Lucille hurried out. “Mark! Oh Mark, I’m so glad you came!”
She stopped in front of me. I couldn’t help but smile as I looked her up and down. Her cheeks were slightly blushed. Her long, golden locks of hair flowed beautifully down her back. The dress she wore puffed out and her sleeves were short. The ribbon in her hair was tied into a perfect bow. She looked like a doll!
“Mark?” I suddenly realized Lucille had been talking to me. I blinked and looked into her eyes. “I said do you like my dress?”
I swallowed as my mouth went dry. “Oh…yes! Very much,” I answered.
“Lucille? Invite him in!” I heard her mother calling to her from the door. “Don’t make him stand out there sweating all night!”
I blushed. Seems everyone knew how hard this was for me.
Lucille turned and walked toward the house. “We can go in for a moment, but then I want to show you something.”
I followed her inside. I’d been inside before, but this time it seemed more personal. Her mother took the gift from my hand. She also allowed that I could take my jacket off. I wished I had been allowed to take my tie off too. “Mother won’t serve the punch until the party, but would you like a glass of water.”
I nodded and turned to receive the already-filled glass from her mother. “Hurry up and drink it so you can come see, Mark.”
I drank the water as she waited somewhat impatiently. Then we walked outside together. The barn was lit. She opened the door and stepped inside. I tipped my hat to her father who was working in his woodshop in the corner. She led me to a stall. “There she is. Isn’t she the most beautiful colt you’ve ever seen?”
I was dumbstruck as I stared at her. The colt was a beautiful copper color. I reached out and touched her. “Father said I can break her all by myself. He said she’s half-broken now.”
“You…” I turned and stared at her. “You break a colt?”
“Well of course!” Lucille said. She squared her shoulders. “Don’t you think a girl can break a horse?”
“Oh, sure.” I petted the cold again. “What are you going to name her?”
Lucille hugged her pony and giggled. “Penny. I’m gonna name her Penny.”
I smiled. “That’s a nice name.” Suddenly, I heard voices outside. “Guests are arriving.”
I watched as Lucille ran to meet the other guests. Soon, Billy arrived. We were the only two boys who made it. We stayed by the punch bowl and desert table most of the night. The girls all giggled over girl stuff. I watched them whisper to each other a lot.
I was there about an hour when Pa suddenly arrived. I saw him and Mr. Bandy talking. Then Mr. Bandy nodded and shook Pa’s hand. I raised my eyebrows, but Pa just smiled and waved at me.
“Can I open my gifts now, mother?” Lucille asked. “Then we can have cake and ice cream.”
Mrs. Bandy nodded, stating that was a good idea. I walked outside with Billy then. The gifts were something I didn’t want to watch. There was no telling what the girls were giving her! “What did you give her?” Billy asked as we walked toward the corral.
I stepped up onto the fence and stared inside at the horses. “I don’t know. Pa bought it while I was at school.”
“Oh.” Billy sighed. “Mama made me go into the store with her and pick it out myself. I got her a batch of fudge. Miss Milly said she loves fudge.”
“Hello, boys.” Mr. Bandy walked up to us. “It’s a little too crowded in the house?”
“Yeah,” I answered. “The girls like to giggle. We needed some fresh air.”
Mr. Bandy took a long puff off his pipe. “Yes. I’m the only man in the house, what with a wife and daughter.” Mr. Bandy looked down at me. “Oh, there’s some trouble in town. Your father will have to stay awhile, so when the party’s over, I’m to take you to the Benson’s ranch.”
“What’s going on?” I asked, suddenly concerned.
Mr. Bandy looked down at me as he removed the pipe from his mouth. “Don’t you fret now, boy. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“Ready for cake?” Mrs. Bandy called from the doorway. We hurried in to sing happy birthday.
Lucille turned and smiled at me as some of the girls stared at me and giggled. I looked at Billy and shrugged as we started singing happy birthday. Then we waited our turns to be served cake and ice cream. As soon as I got mine, Lucille called out. “Oh Mark, I saved you a seat over here!”
I walked towards the living room. She was sitting on the fireplace hearth. I sat down next to her and smiled my thanks. “I want to thank you for my gift. It’s the most wonderful gift!”
I had to play dumb. “Really?”
Pa always said I was a terrible liar. “Well, you know what it is…don’t you?”
“Oh, well…I-“ I stumbled for an answer. “Actually, Lucille…”
Lucille held up a book. I took it and opened it. It was titled “The Big Book of Poems.” Lucille smiled as she ran her hand across the pages. “It’s wonderful, Mark. Maybe you could read some to me…later.”
“I’d rather go fishing,” I muttered to myself.
“Oh…” I coughed in my fist. “I’m…uh…pretty busy…but I’d love to h-help you with your colt. You know – breaking it and such.”
“Really, Mark?” Lucille smiled. “That’s simply wonderful!” Then she jumped up. “Who wants to play graveyard tag?” We all hurried outside.
We had been playing for ten minutes when suddenly we heard gunshots. We were running around laughing and chasing each other and suddenly froze. Our smiles died with the laughter. We straightened and stared toward town. “Pa!” I cried.
I started to run forward, but Mr. Bandy ran up and grabbed me by the arms from behind me. I struggled something awful. “Let me go!” I yelled. “Let me go!”
“Your father said you weren’t to go into town!” Mr. Bandy stated sternly.
“He’s in trouble!” I cried.
“Come on, boy.” Mr. Bandy kept a firm hold of my arm and led me inside. He handed me a glass of punch and sat me down in a chair by the fire. I sighed as I untied my tie and threw it down beside me. Then I stared into the fire.
“Mark?” I heard her voice from the doorway.
I looked up. She had a tiny smile on her face. She walked over to me and sat down in a chair next to me. “Everyone’s gone.”
“I’m sorry,” I said with a sigh. “It’s my fault your birthday party got ruined.”
“It’s not your fault, Mark.” Lucille put her hand on top of mine to comfort me. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. But, I knew it was the touch of friendship and concern. “Father said there was some trouble in town.”
“I never get used to it.”
“What, Mark?” Lucille asked in a soft, gentle voice.
“Gun fire.” I continued staring into the fire. “Every time I hear them, I wonder if Pa…” I swallowed. I couldn’t put the thought into words. “I wish I could help him.”
“I’m sorry, Mark. Father said your Pa’s really good with a rifle. I’m sure he’s alright.” Lucille spoke softly.
“I’m sure he is,” I said as a tear fell from my eye. I quickly wiped it away. “I just can’t help thinking that someday…” I sighed. “I don’t understand why people use guns on other people.”
Lucille sighed. “Father told me that they’re cowards. They never learned to love. And now they’re afraid to…to let anyone else have control of them.”
I nodded. “I suppose that’s one theory.”
Lucille looked toward the kitchen. ‘You want another piece of cake while we wait?”
Lucille nodded. “Father took his rifle and went to town.”
“Oh.” I sighed. “I think I’ll just go to the barn.”
Lucille stood up and grabbed my arm. “Father said you mustn’t leave! He’d be very upset if-“
There was a sudden panic in her voice. I closed my eyes to gain the strength I needed. “I’m not going to disobey your father. I just want to see the colt.” Lucille started to follow me. “Alone.”
I walked out to the barn and stood by the colt. There was something about horses that brought me comfort. I laid my head against Penny and closed my eyes as I began praying.
I heard the barn door open and felt a hand on my shoulder. I was too afraid to turn and look. “Mark?” I heard.
Joy soared in my heart as I heard Pa’s voice, but I still didn’t bring myself to turn around. I didn’t want Pa to see my tears this time. I wiped my eyes as I reached out and touched the horse. “Gun fire,” I whispered. “It’s the most terrifying sound in the world, Pa.”
Pa sighed. “I know, son.”
“I don’t think…think a fellow ever gets used to hearing it.” I continued stroking the colt, trying to get my emotions under control.
“No son. I guess he doesn’t.”
“This colt is so beautiful. He’s just started out in life – has his whole life in front of him. He’s got it easy. He doesn’t ever have to worry about his Ma or Pa being gunshot in some…some stupid gunfight that’s senseless. He doesn’t have to worry about-“ I turned and saw the bandage on Pa’s forehead. Instantly, I reached out and touched it. “Pa?” Now I was really scared.
“It’s just a graze, son. Knocked me out for a minute, but I’ll be fine,” Pa assured me.
“This time.” I turned from him and again began stroking the colt. “What about next time?” Or the next…or the next?” I thought to myself as I shook my head. “Why can’t all this…this gun fire stop?” I wiped away the tears that continued to fall down my cheeks.
Pa put his hands on my shoulders. “Son, let’s sit down over here and talk this out.”
“No!” I yelled as I balled my hands into fists.. “I don’t want to talk about it!” I suddenly turned and stared at him. “I don’t want to hear you tell me that we only life for today and don’t worry about tomorrow! I don’t want to hear that you’ll live until God takes you! I don’t want to hear about it being your responsibility to help tame the West! Why can’t you just be a…a…rancher?! Why do you have to be so good with that rifle?!” I jabbed a finger toward his rifle as my voice grew louder and angrier.
Pa said nothing. He remained silent as he stared deep into my eyes. His eyes were gentle and compassionate, full of love and regret. Finally, very slowly, he said, “Sit…down.”
I sat on a crate. Pa sat down beside me and put his arm around me. “Son,” Pa swallowed. “I didn’t ask for this to be my talent.” He held the rifle in front of me. “I wish I never had to pick up a rifle. Micah was almost killed tonight.” My head shot around at that. “Yes. He’ll be laid up for about a week. What if I hadn’t been there, Mark? The outlaws would have gotten away. Micah would have been killed as well as Nils.”
I closed my eyes as more tears fell down my cheeks. “Why? All this gun fire…it’s so senseless.” I turned and stared at Pa as I shook my head. “It doesn’t get us anywhere, Pa. It gets people killed and…and…leaves children fatherless and women widows. I just…I guess I don’t understand.”
“Oh Mark,” Pa sighed. “I wish I had the answers for you. I really do.” He turned my head, forcing me to look at him. “Son, if I could make this world to be so you would never have to pick up a gun against another man, I’d do it in a heartbeat.” Pa sighed. “I’m afraid that the way it stands right now, there’s a good chance you will face a man with a gun someday. And every night before I go to sleep, I’ll pray that when that day comes, God will protect you. That good will always win over evil.”
I didn’t like what Pa was saying. In the past, he said he never wanted me to know what it was like, to have to face another and be forced to take a another’s life, now… I was hoping he’d give me some sort of hope… I knew I wasn’t like him. My heart was more sensitive – I felt too much. I was more like Ma, and Pa knew that. I think that’s why he kept me from using a rifle for so long. Because he saw so much of Ma inside me.
Pa spoke again as his eyes filled up with tears. I could tell it was hard for him to say these words. “Son…I…” He swallowed as a tear escaped the corner of his eyes. “I’m going to tell you something that’s really hard for me.” He took my hand. “Mark, if the time comes, when you are a man, and there is a choice when citizens of this town are forced to stand up to a gunfight, I hope you remember where your place is. I don’t want you back at the ranch while other people fight. I want you to stand up for the Marshal and for those who are being fought against by evil. It’s our God-given duty.”
Pa and I just stared into each other’s eyes. Tears filled my eyes and I threw my arms around Pa. I knew how hard it was for him to say that. I allowed the tears to flow down my cheeks as we held each other for a few moments. Then I lifted up and wiped my tears. “I know what you’re saying, Pa. Thank you.” . Maybe…, maybe he was seeing more of him in me. This was another one of those ‘growing up’ times -- Pa was admitting that I was getting closer to becoming a man.
We stood then after our tears were gone. We made our way out of the barn and toward the house to thank the Bandy’s for the wonderful evening. As I stood there, I saw the concern in Lucille’s eyes. “I meant what I said.” I smiled at her. “I’ll help you break that colt.”
“After school on Monday?” Lucille asked.
I looked up at Pa. Pa nodded. “I’ll be here.”
Then Pa and I got on our horses and rode toward North Fork.
A week passed by. I spent the days at school and the evenings helping Lucille break her colt. By Friday, Lucille and I were able to go on a horseback ride together. We rode out to the ranch and back into town.
Lucille agreed to keep Charlie at the farm so she could feed him on a daily basis, so of course that gave me plenty of reason to spend time at her house every day. On Friday, Pa announced that Micah was doing very well and we would go home after having supper at the hotel – which, by the way, Lucille was invited to eat with us for all her help with Charlie.
After supper, it was time to say goodbye. Our hearts had changed over the week, though. Instead of feeling an unfamiliar attraction with each other we had felt before, our spending time together helped the friendship we once shared to return bigger and stronger then ever. I think it was best for both of us. And if you ask me, I think Pa seemed a little happier when he realized we were settling into a wonderful friendship mode.
“Mark, you’ll need to stop by to get Charlie,” Lucille said. I hear the hint of sadness in her voice and knew she had become attached the to pig named Charlie.
I turned and looked at Pa who only smiled and gave me a slight nod of the head. “Lucille, you reckon your Pa would let you keep that pig?”
“Oh, honest, Mark?” Lucille asked.
I nodded. “You need to ask your Pa. But if it’s okay with him, then you can keep it.”
“Oh, thank you, Mark!” The smile that spread across her face was almost more then I could take – regardless of the fact that we’d settled on being only friends. “How can I ever thank you?”
I smiled and turned toward Pa. Pa grinned at me. “Well…” I said as I thought of a way to kill two birds with one stone. “You could…go fishing with me sometime. I’ll bait the hook and take off the fish. You could bring some of those oatmeal cookies I like so much.”
I was rewarded with another smile. “Okay.”
“After church on Sunday?”
Lucille nodded. I tipped my hat to her as she turned and hurried down the street towards home. Pa untied Razor and Blue Boy from the hitching post. “Pa?” I crossed my arms. “I’m confused.”
“About what?” Pa asked.
“Well, you know those feelings I had last week and all?” Pa nodded. “While we spent time together this week, they seemed to go away and we agreed to be friends. But now…I’m beginning to wonder if boys and girls can ever be ‘just friends.’”
Pa patted me on top of the head. “That, my boy, is a talk for some other time.” Pa mounted his horse. “When I figure it out!”
Pa laughed as I screwed up my face in confusion again. Oh boy, here we go again!
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
The Quiet Fear
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch