“Mark, wake up!” That was the third time Pa came in to tell me to get up. If I had to pick my least favorite day of the week, it was Monday, because that meant a whole week of school was just ahead of me! Sunday nights were rough in that after two days of no homework, Pa suddenly made me do homework, and I usually ended up having to go to bed early for some reason or other.
But last night I got to bed a little late. The Toomey’s had come over for supper and hadn’t left until late. Pa had been trying to get them to leave for nearly 45 minutes before he suddenly stood up and announced that it was way past my bedtime. So, I reckon I had an excuse to sleep in this morning.
“Mark!” Pa came over and pulled the covers off of me. “Boy, if I have to come in here and tell you to get up once more, it’s not going to be with words! You hear me, boy?”
“Alright, alright,” I groaned loudly as I reached for the covers.
But Pa had seen me and hurried back over to the bed. “Oh, no you don’t, mister! Get up and get your ready on now!”
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. I groaned as the sunlight shone in the window. Ever so slowly, I stretched then began dressing. Pa stuck his head in the door. “And don’t forget to wash up, son!” he demanded.
“Yes sir,” I said as I yawned.
Five minutes later I rushed in to sit down at the kitchen table. I didn’t dare look at Pa because I knew he was looking at me without a smile, and any look without a smile from Pa was usually not good! I began eating my eggs and reached for a piece of bacon. “Hurry up and eat, son. You’ll be late for school.
Yep, that was a typical Monday morning at the McCain Ranch. Pa ordered me around from the moment he began waking me up to the moment I left for school! I think that if you asked him, Pa would say he hated Monday mornings too.
After I popped the last bit of food in my mouth, I dumped my dishes in the sink. “And don’t forget to brush your teeth or comb your hair!” Pa demanded from behind me. I ran to the wash basin and began searching for my toothbrush. I could feel Pa’s eyes boring into the back of me as he stood behind me with his arms crossed. Finally, he reached over me and pulled the toothbrush down from the shelf. “Oh, thanks Pa!” I said.
Pa had my books all gathered up and in the strap by the time I was ready. “Let’s go,” he said as he threw me the books. “We need to stop by the Muchen Ranch this morning to deliver some barley.”
I looked all over Pa’s desk for my pencil. “What are you doing, Mark?”
“I’m looking for my pencil!” I answered impatiently.
“What would it be doing at my desk?” Pa asked.
“Oh,” I turned and showed him the pencil. “I was sharpening it with your knife over your desk.”
I turned toward the door. “My lunch?”
Pa ran a hand through his hair. “I swear, I don’t see how Toomey gets his son to school when he keeps him up all hours of the night!” He handed me a couple coins. “At the café. Don’t spend it on candy, boy!”
“Why are you going with me?” I asked as I stuffed the money in my pocket.
“Because I want to make sure you get there!” Pa answered. “And I have to stop by the Muchen Ranch on my way in anyhow.” I stood in the doorway and nodded, not sure why he thought I couldn’t make it to school by myself. Pa turned around. “Well, come on, son!”
As you know, when we got over to the Muchen Ranch, we found Mr. Muchen murdered and Volney Adams sitting in a chair. I asked Pa what happened but he didn’t know. “Volney?” I asked as I stared at him.
“I don't know, but let’s not jump to any conclusions. Volney’s record’s not gonna help him anyway,” Pa told me. I wanted to stay and help Pa figure this out. But Pa suddenly said, “Look Mark, you go on to school but don’t say a word about what happened, you hear?”
“Yes Pa,” I said quietly as I stared at Volney. It didn’t look too good for him!
“You hear?” Pa suddenly said louder and with more sternness.
“Yeah,” I answered. Then I hurried out the door.
I slid into my seat as Miss Adams was calling roll. Thankfully she hadn’t gotten to my name yet. But I was tired and began yawning as we started reading from our McGuffy’s. My head began nodding off and Miss Adams suddenly called on me. “Mark McCain!” she said.
I opened my eyes and stood up. “Yes ma’am?”
“Would you continue where Steve left off please?”
“Oh, um…” I looked down at the reader in my hand. “Where’d he leave off, ma’am?”
The class laughed. “Stay in at recess, Mark.”
I sat down. Kevin was sitting right beside me. “You know, McCain, you are in at recess more then you’re out!” I shot him an angry look.
At lunch I hurried into town. I could hear a commotion coming from the middle of the street. There was a medicine wagon! I hurried up and stared at it. A man was there selling some medicine that he said would cure anything that ailed me. “Mark,” Pa said as he came up to me.
“Hey Pa, can I have twenty-five cents?” I asked as I stared at the medicine man.
“Twenty-five cents?” Pa put his hands on his hips and stared at my awaiting hand. I turned and looked at him. “Mark, you might as well go over to the saloon and buy twenty-five cents worth of beer!”
“Really?” I asked in a teasing voice.
Pa grabbed my by the arm shaking his head. “Come on, boy. Let’s eat lunch!”
“Why you still here?” I asked as we headed for the café.
“I had to bring Volney in to the Marshal.”
We ate lunch as I looked around. Suddenly I heard someone behind me say, “Yes sir, there’s gonna be a hangin’! Should have figured, a jailbird and all. I guess that’s what the old man gets for hiring a man like that – was bound to happen sooner or later.”
I suddenly turned to see who it was. “Mark, turn around and finish your lunch so you can get back to school.” Pa’s voice held a angry tone in it. When I turned, I could tell it wasn’t for me, but for the men behind me.
I finished my sandwich and asked for dessert, but Pa said no. “There shouldn’t even be a hangin’! We should just string him up right now!” I suddenly heard behind me.
I turned around again. “Go on to school, Mark,” Pa ordered gruffly. I turned back to look at him.
“Yes sir,” I said quietly.
I ran back to school. The kids were all gathered around in a circle. I hurried up to see what the talk was about. “Mark, have you heard?” Jeff suddenly shouted. “There’s gonna be a hanging!”
“You don’t know that,” I stated. “We don’t know he did it.”
“Mark, he was in jail. My Pa said that-“
I ran up to Jeff. “I don’t care what your Pa said you old creep! You need to stop talking about people behind their backs.”
Freddie came up to me. “Mark, can’t you see that-“
I turned around. “All I can see is that a man was found sitting in a chair grieving for a poor old man that died. That’s all I know!”
“How do you know so much?” Sally finally asked as she put her hands on her hips.
I suddenly gasped. “Oh, uh…Pa and me were there this morning. We had to drop off some barley and Pa found them.”
Suddenly, the bell rang. I went inside and sat down. Jeff was directly behind me. He leaned forward and said, “Your old man is gonna see that he get strung up! He can’t lie and when he tells the truth, that jailbird will hang!”
That made me angry. I turned around and grabbed him by the shirt. “Don’t say that!” I demanded in a loud whisper. “I’ll lick you good!”
“Mark McCain!” Miss Adams suddenly called angrily.
I turned around. She was standing there with her hands on her hips. “I think you should spend some time in that corner,” she pointed toward the corner she used for punishment. I saw that corner from time to time. Jeff suddenly laughed. Miss Adams stared at me. “Mark?” Jeff snickered again. I turned around and gave him a angry glare. “And there’s another one for you, Jeff Barrows!” Miss Adams stated. I went to the back to stand in the corner.
All afternoon Jeff did that sick little laugh. We usually got along okay, but sometimes he did like to try to get under my skin. By the time school was out that afternoon, I knew there was going to be a fight. I picked up my books and hung them from the horn on my saddle. Then I turned around. “Jeff!” I called.
Jeff came over to me. I clinched my fists to my side. “You been messing with me all afternoon and I’m pretty sick of it!”
Jeff folded his arms and cocked his head to one side as he stared at me. “Yeah, well there ain’t much you could do to stop it, is there? Lessin’ you want to stand in the corner again!”
“Oh,” I answered. “But there is something I can do about it now!” I suddenly gave him a hard shove which knocked him down to the ground. “Let that be a lesson to you, you loud-mouthed creep!”
Jeff sat there and stared at me. “Why you-“ he started as he stood up. He came busting towards me and knocked me to the ground. I gave him a hard punch and he tried to punch me back. We rolled around on the ground for awhile, as I delivered a few hard smacks to him. He managed a few hard smacks at me too. I finally pinned him to the ground. I sat on his middle and said, “Now, you need to learn a lesson on talking about people behind their backs, Jeff Barrows! The next time I hear that dirt come from your mouth, I’ll make you eat it, ya' hear! My Pa likes to quote the good book, and one thing he always says to me is to judge not lessin’ you want to be judged! Remember that!”
I stood up and grabbed my hat. I smacked it on my leg a few times to rid it of the dirt then put it on my head as some of the kids looked at each other and back at me. “And that goes for the rest of you too! Volney Adams has always been a nice man, and I don’t want to hear anything contrary about him.” There was complete silence as I got on my horse and rode away.
When I got home, I tied Blue Boy up to the hitching post and went to work on my chores. “How was school, son?” Pa asked. But his smile disappeared as he saw my dirty face and clothes. He came up to me and touched my face. I flinched. “What happened, Mark?”
“Nothing,” I answered as I brushed his hand away. Pa’s eyes held a question. “I got chores to do.”
I raked out the stalls in the barn as I thought about the gossip at school. I shook my head as I tried to figure out why the gossip was so bad. It all made me so mad. I hadn’t stopped to think on what I thought myself. Just hearing the kids talking about stringing up a man like he was nothing made me mad. I had talked to him and he seemed very nice.
Pa came into the barn and leaned against a post. He watched me work for a few moments without saying a word. I knew he was waiting for me to explain. I swallowed as I kept working. “I got in a fight,” I answered.
“Who with?” Pa asked.
“Jeff,” I answered.
Pa nodded. “Figures.” He came forward and put a hand on my arm. I suddenly stopped raking and turned toward him. “What was it about?”
I turned from him. “We just had a difference of opinion,” I answered. “He…he said some things he shouldn’t have said.” I went back to raking.
“Mark?” I heard the warning in his voice and I turned around. “Who started the fight?”
“It doesn’t matter, Pa. It’s over now,” I answered.
Pa nodded. “That may be, son, but I want to know who started it.”
I went to the next stall and started raking fiercely. “I told you that he said some things he shouldn’t,” I answered.
“Who started the fight?” Pa asked.
I turned and looked at him. “Pa, all the kids were saying that Volney Adams was going to be hung because he’s guilty. Jeff said you were going to be the one to convict him since you walked in and found him.” Pa suddenly stared at me. “I…I’m sorry, it just slipped out.” I swallowed as Pa sighed and raised his eyebrows at me. “I got mad and warned him to stop saying those things. Well, he made me stand in the corner.”
“Jeff made you?” Pa asked suddenly.
“Okay, Miss Adams made me, but it was because I got mad at Jeff. Anyhow, he kept taunting me all afternoon. I just gave him a fair warning.”
“I see,” Pa stated with a nod. “Mark, if you could have walked away from the fight, you should have. You’re old enough to know how I feel about it.”
“It was just a fight,” I stated.
“Today it was just fists. Someday what if you both had guns?” I knew what he was saying and nodded my head.
“Supper’s ready. Come on in and eat.” He walked away.
As I sat there eating, I thought more on what had happened. Pa told me that Mr. Muchen’s money box was empty. Someone had killed him for the money. I still couldn’t believe Voleny had done it, but I knew things didn’t look good for him.
After supper, I did the dishes then sat down to work on my homework. I couldn’t concentrate as I thought on what the kids were saying at school. I wondered if it was possible that the kids were right. Pa came over to the table and touched my face where the bruise was. I flinched. “Doesn’t look too bad, son,” Pa commented. “But your hair is filthy. Let’s wash it.”
I suddenly turned and looked at him. “Oh Pa!” I groaned, but Pa pointed over his shoulder toward the sink. “Yes sir,” I answered.
As we started over towards the sink, I asked, “Are you gonna punish me for getting in a fight?”
“Of course not, son,” Pa answered. “But like I said, if you could have walked away, you should have. If you started that fight instead of getting on your horse and riding…”
I didn’t agree with him, and said nothing. Jeff had been asking for it all day and I had to show him that I wasn’t going to put up with that. Nothing else was said about it.
I didn’t like washing my hair, but Pa didn’t like me wearing dirt in it so I washed it without complaining…too much! When the soap was all rinsed out of it, I asked for a towel. “Why don’t you put some soap on your face first?” Pa asked.
“Oh alright,” I said, although I knew I didn’t really have a choice.
“You kids just don’t like soap, do ya'?” I laughed over that. He was right. I didn’t like soap.
I told Pa to give me some water. He pumped several times, but nothing came out. The pump was broken. I wiped the soap off my face with the towel as best I could. "Are we goin' into town tomorrow to visit Volney in jail?" I suddenly asked.
“Maybe,” Pa answered as he started taking the pump apart.
"Everybody thinks he did it. I mean that he killed Mr. Muchen and stole his money," I stated, but I was still not sure what to think. Pa asked me. "Oh, I don't know. Mr. Muchen was awfully mean to him,” I commented suddenly.
“Oh, and that coupled with the gossip in town makes him guilty, huh?" Pa asked me sternly.
"I didn't say that. I was just telling you what I heard the folks saying in town. Doesn't mean that I believe it myself.” I actually didn’t know what to believe, but I didn’t much care for all the kids’ gossiping either.
"I know that son. But gossiping about something as important as a man's life can be a very dangerous thing. You can become prejudiced without even realizing it.” I knew what he was saying. That made me feel even more determined that fighting Jeff this afternoon was the right thing to do. I was trying to stop that vicious gossiping that the kids knew I hated. “Now, we got laws to protect us and one of those laws says that a man is innocent until he's proven guilty.”
I knew what he meant. Pa told me to get to bed. I started to go, but then turned. I suddenly wanted to know what my Pa thought. "About Volney? Well son. I don't think anyone gentle enough to see the real beauty in Ellie Aikens could ever raise his hands against another human being."
I thought on that. That sounded good enough for me! “That’s what I think,” I suddenly said it. I really did think that – I just needed to hear someone else say it before I could admit it to myself.
"Well, if that's what you think then you should stick to it,” Pa stated.
The next morning, Pa and I rode into town together. While we had eaten breakfast together, he told me he was afraid of a lynching. That worried me. I’d heard of them happening, but figured Micah could keep it from happening. “Mark, gossip is a powerful tool. It can kill a man faster and harder then a gun!” That’s why he decided to go in.
When we were just outside town, we saw the gallows being built. “Oh look, the hangman working on the gallows!” I stated.
But Pa was suddenly upset with me. “Mark, I don’t want to ever hear you call him that again. His name is Mr. Tenner. You remember that!” he ordered.
I didn’t say anything but “Yes sir” as we started riding again. As we stopped to talk to him, it was pretty clear that Mr. Tenner was planning on hanging Volney too. Pa rode away without another word. I followed him into town.
Pa looked at me as we rode in. “We’ll talk about what you said later. Mark,” Pa turned to me as we started to ride into town. “I don’t want you in town today.” He raised his eyebrows at me. I nodded, knowing that was a strict order. “I’ll meet you at Hattie’s after school, son,” he said as he stopped. I rode on to school.
When I arrived at school, a circle of kids suddenly broke up. I tried to ignore it as I walked inside. “Mark McCain,” Jeff suddenly called from behind me. I stopped on the steps and slowly turned around. “You had no cause to fight me!
“Didn’t I?” I asked. Then I turned around and walked inside.
The other kids walked in. “Can’t you see that he did it? Can’t you see that?” I sat down at my desk and just stared straight ahead. “Mark,” Jeff put a hand on my desk and leaned down towards me. “He’s guilty as sin!”
“You don’t know that,” I stated.
Jeff laughed. “Of course it’s obvious. Why you said yourself that your Pa found him in hovering over the body yesterday morning!”
I suddenly turned my head toward Jeff and narrowed my eyes at him. “I said no such thing, Jeffery Barrows! I said that he was sitting in a chair mourning his death. There’s a big difference there. I don’t want to fight ya. My Pa wasn’t too happy with me last night and I don’t think a second fight will be left up to my judgment to decide on right and wrong. So if it’s all the same to you-“
Miss Adams walked in and could tell something was going on. “Alright, everyone in their seats!” she ordered. She went up to her desk and sat her books down. Taking off her bonnet, she looked around at the solemn faces in the room. “Well, I suppose there’s no reason to ring the bell this morning.” She threw her bonnet down on the desk and put her hands on her hips. “Someone want to tell me what’s going on here?”
She started walking among the desks looking at each of us. She stopped beside my desk. “Mark?” I stayed silent as I busied myself with organizing my books. She folded her arms. “Alright.” She stood in front of the class. “Now, living in the boarding house, I hear a lot of gossip that goes on in town. I don’t know for sure, but I think that may be what’s going on here.”
Again, there was complete silence as she looked around the classroom. She kept her arms folded and gave each of us a stern look. “I don’t know who started it in this school, and I don’t know what that fight after school was about, but I want to make a few things very clear.” She started walking among us again with a stern look on her face. “First of all, you all have been hurt by words and gossip sometime. I’ve punished every one of you in here at some point for something wrong you’ve said, and I’ve watched each of you get hurt over words said. Second of all, I don’t want to hear one more thing – good or bad – about what’s going on in town either here or outside in the schoolyard. You’ve come here to learn, and not to gossip.”
She turned and went to stand beside my desk again. “There will also be no more fighting. If there is, those involved will be expelled from school for two days. Do I make myself clear?”
Again, there was complete silence in the room. She raised her voice just a little, and it made all the difference in the world. “I said, do I make myself clear?” We all responded in the affirmative.
She walked up behind her desk and picked up the history book. “Now class, I just want to ask you a question. What if one of you in this room was the subject of all this gossip? What if that gossip was based on something you had done in your past?” She looked at each one of us again. “Think on that before you say anything else.” She sighed. “Okay, let’s open our books to page 105 while we talk about the Boston Tea Party.”
I didn’t know what was going on in town, but I knew I’d soon find out. As Kevin, me and Freddie sat eating, my Pa rode into the schoolyard. He got off his horse and came over to us. “Hi Pa!” I greeted him with a smile.
“How are things?” he looked around.
“Miss Adams had a talk with the class this morning, Mr. McCain. Mark’s not going to get in any more fights,” Kevin stated.
“Miss Adams said she’d expel the next ones who got in a fight,” I stated.
Pa folded his arms. “Oh, well maybe that was wise of her. Since any boy of mine who got expelled would definitely find himself in trouble.” He smiled at me.
“Yes sir,” I said as I looked at my friends who also held grins on their faces.
“Mark, can I talk to you a minute?” Pa asked as he gently grabbed my arm and helped me up from the bench. We walked away a bit. “I’m not staying in town. I’ll be going back to the ranch. Everything’s fine now.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“George Tenner killed him,” Pa answered.
“George Tenner, the han-“ I stopped, but not before Pa raised his eyebrow at me. “I mean, Mr. Tenner?”
“It seems he hated being a hangman and just killed Mr. Muchen. He was going to kill Volney too, but Volney scratched him.” Pa wiped some sweat off his neck with his kerchief. “Well, I got lots to do at home, so-“
“Pa?” I stopped him. He turned and looked at me. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll make sure everyone knows Volney is free.” Pa nodded at me then winked.
When I got home that afternoon, I worked on my chores. Then Pa and me cooked supper together. That meant we both had to wash the dishes. I liked that! As we started eating, I told Pa all about Miss Adams’s speech. “She right, son. Words are weapons, and they could be as bad as a gun. Mr. Tenner’s being called a hangman all these years was one thing that led to his destruction.” He said this sternly as he looked into my eyes.
“Yes sir,” I answered. Then I went back to eating.
After supper, I went to stand in the doorway. Pa was relaxing on the porch smoking on his cigar. I had been wondering about something all afternoon, and I finally decided to ask the question. “Pa, if Mr. Tenner hated being the hangman so much, why did he become one?” I asked as I laid my arms on his leg and looked into his eyes.
"Well son, sometimes in life we’re trapped into doing things we regret later on. It's too bad, but hangmen are necessary. Somebody's got to be the hangman and be willing to accept payment for it. But also he's got to know what he's letting himself in for when he takes the job. Harold Tenner just wasn't meant to be a hangman. It was only a question of time before he cracked up."
"Before I decide what I'm gonna be, I'm gonna give it lots of thought," I stated.
Pa turned and looked at me. "Now wait a minute. I thought you decided definitely to be a writer a couple of weeks ago."
"I still might be one. I'm gonna think it over a lot first though."
"You do that Mark." Pa suddenly looked at his cigar as he asked, “Dishes done?”
“Not yet,” I answered casually.
“Well, they’re not gonna wash and dry themselves, you know!” That was Pa’s way of telling me to get in there and do them now. But I remembered our agreement, and we both had cooked supper tonight.
"Alright, tonight you can wash and I'll dry," I stated.
But that’s not what Pa wanted. "Oh, no, no. Tonight you'll wash and you'll dry."
You know, that’s a funny thing about parents. They can change the rules at any moment. “Oh, but Pa, that’s not fa-“ I started, but he moved his thumb toward the house a few times. I turned to go in, but I wanted to argue! This really wasn’t fair. He turned again, motioning for me to get inside and do them.
I went, but I wasn’t happy about it. But as I started in on my job I suddenly realized that this was my punishment for what I had said earlier. When Pa finally came back inside, I was almost done. I just looked at him and shook my head. “This was a punishment,” I stated.
Pa nodded. “Yes it was, son.”
“For calling Mr. Tenner the hangman this morning.”
Pa sat down at his desk and opened his books. “When you’re done, get started on your homework.”
I nodded. But then I turned and smiled at my Pa. He looked up and smiled at me, giving me a short laugh. I knew what he was thinking…”That boy!”
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Trail of Hate
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch