“Mark, stop bolting your milk!” Pa said for the third time this morning. I stood up and started gathering my books up. It was Monday morning, the first day of school after our spring break, and I was running late! “Make sure you get home right after school, son. We need to get the cattle separated tonight.”
I hurried and gathered my books, hardly listening to a word Pa said. “Pa, you seen my grammar book?” I asked as I started opening drawers at his desk. “I can’t find it anywhere!”
“No. But if you aren’t out that door in two sec-“ Pa started.
“Oh, here it is!” I cried from under his desk. “I wonder how it got there!” I started to stand up. “Ouch!” I cried as my head thumped the bottom of the desk. I rubbed my head. Suddenly, I felt Pa grab my arm and lift me up. He pointed toward the door. “Oh, uh…yes sir!”
Pa put his hands on his hips as I hurriedly worked on tying my books up. “How can you be a man one day and such a boy the next?”
“Practice.” I declared as I finished fastening my books up.
“I’m leaving. See you later, Pa!” I felt Pa right behind me. From years of experience, I didn’t have to turn to know the exact look he was holding on his face. I stopped when I realized something else…I had forgotten to saddle Blue Boy!”
I slowly turned. Pa had that mean look on his face. “Oh, uh…see ya, Pa!” I hurried to the barn and opened Blue Boy’s stall. I threw his saddle blanket over him then hurriedly lifted the saddle. As I went to work on the cinch, I could see Pa’s big shadow lurking in the door way. I glanced up nervously and saw the look on his face. Boy, it had been a long time since I pulled a stunt like this!
“How does going to bed at 8:00 tonight sound to you, Mark?” Pa asked.
“Eight o’clock?” I griped as I tightened the cinch. “But Pa, it’s still light outside at…”
I looked up. As soon as I saw the expression on my Pa’s face, I stopped. As I led Blue Boy out of the stall, I declared, “Eight o’clock sounds, good, Pa. I’ve a feeling that by the time you get done working me today, that bed will feel mighty fine.”
“Good,” Pa answered with a curt nod.
I mounted Blue Boy. “See ya, Pa.”
I loped Blue Boy as fast as I dared to school. The schoolyard was quiet by the time I got there meaning everyone was inside already. “Oh no!” I groaned as I tied Blue Boy to the hitching post. I grabbed my books, took two steps at a time, and raced into the room. Mr. Griswald suddenly stopped talking. All the kids turned and stared at me. I froze. “I’m…sorry.”
Some of the kids started snickering. “Well, thank you, Mr. McCain for that rather…uh…extraordinary entrance. You will stay the afternoon and be my personal assistant.”
“Oh, but my Pa…” I stopped.
“I’ll send word to your father, Mr. McCain.” Mr. Griswald opened his book to go back to the lesson he had just started.
I slowly walked to my desk. “You don’t understand, sir. My Pa said I had to get home. He-“
“That will be all, Mr. McCain.”
I groaned as I sat down. Freddie leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Looks like the ‘man’ is in trouble!” he snickered.
“Freddie, would you like to work on the wood pile after school?” Mr. Griswald asked then.
“Oh, no sir!” Freddie declared.
“It seems to me the younger children should be setting the example for you since they are so much more well-behaved. What’s gotten into you two today?” Freddie and I looked at each other as we slid down in our seats. It was quite humiliating to get reprimanded in front of the little kids.
I hadn’t brought any lunch. Mr. Griswald told me that if Pa worried about my nourishment, he’d see that I got lunch. Pa never came and I knew what that meant – it was a hard lesson to learn. After lunch, Mr. Griswald gave me some math papers to grade. I groaned, but sat down in the back of the room to grade them. Lucky for me, they were from the early grades so determining the correct answers was pretty easy.
“Alright, class, we are going to begin talking today about profit. Now, I hope you all read in your agriculture books about this subject today. Let’s suppose you are a rancher and you have a bull and three cows. How can you increase your profit and add more cattle the next year?”
I raised my head and listened as the students answered. Mr. Griswald smiled. He liked all the answers. “The cow can have calves. That’s one way. What’s another way?”
“You can sell the calves!” Little Charles answered from the front.
“Well…” Mr. Griswald started.
“You can sell the cows when they are ready for market!” Steve stated.
“That’s right! Then with the money you make for them, you can buy more cattle. The calves will grow as well. Now, let’s say you sell one of your cows and in two years, the calves begin giving birth. How many calves can you have then?”
I rolled my eyes. That sounded more like math than agriculture! I waited to see who would answer the question. “Five cows and five calves!” little Tommy shouted.
“Very good!” Mr. Griswald continued with the lesson. “Now, let’s think of other ways we can make a profit in our farms and ranches? Everyone had great ideas. I had forgotten all about my duty as I got into the discussion.
“Chickens!” I declared. Mr. Griswald looked at me. All the kids turned and looked at me. “Well…you can raise chickens and they’ll lay eggs. You can sell the older chickens and you can sell the eggs – except when you want to have more chickens of course. Let’s see….I could build roosting nests in the barn. Then I can get some chickens…just enough to start with and not gather eggs for a little while. That way…” I suddenly stopped as I realized I was talking out of turn. “Oh…I’m sorry.”
But as I sat there grading the papers, I began thinking on that. It COULD be a good idea! I imagined the profit I would make by setting up roosts in the barn. I imagined being able to sell eggs to Miss Lou or the General Store in town and gaining money that way. Oh, I knew it wasn’t much, but the number of chickens would grow. Then maybe…just maybe…I could build a whole other barn just for my chickens! I smiled at the process as I sat my hand in the palm of my hand and propped it up on the desk.
“Mr. McCain?” I suddenly snapped back to reality. “I’m sorry to put a stop to your day dreaming, but I would like those papers graded by the time school is over.
“Oh…uh…yes sir!” I declared.
When school let out, I gave Mr. Griswald my papers then hurried out of the school. I raced into town and stopped by the hotel. “Miss Lou!” I called as I rushed in.
Lou hurried out of the kitchen, her hands were on her hips and her lips were pressed together “Whatcha think ye doin’ running in here like a screaming banshee?” She asked. “Don’t ye know I’ve got customers? This is a hotel, not a playground, Mark McCain!”
“Oh…uh…uh…uh…I’m sorry, Miss Lou.” Lou reached up and took my hat off. “Oh…yeah. I have a question, Miss Lou.”
“Well come on into the kitchen. We can talk while I cook.”
I smiled as I smelled the pork chops frying in the pan. Those were my favorite! I sat down at the table and she set a piece of apple pie in front of me along with a glass of milk. My eyes grew wide as I stared at the pie. Then I looked up at her. “Well, eat it!” she demanded.
My mind flashed back to the last time I’d tasted her apple pie. I knew if Pa could see me, he’d tell me that I had to eat it – it wasn’t polite to refuse when something’s been offered to you. Of course, I could always use the excuse that Pa wouldn’t want me spoiling my supper. That would have worked a few years ago, but at the age of 14…”Well, what I wanted to ask you is…I have myself an idea about raising some chickens and selling the eggs. I mean…we have some chickens for our own personal use – our own eggs and having fried chicken every now and then…but I was thinking I could raise chickens and sell them. Would you…buy my eggs to use in your restaurant?”
Lou turned from the stove. She looked down at the plate, still holding the untouched apple pie. “Is there something wrong with the pie?” she asked.
“Oh, uh…no ma’am!” I picked up my fork and put the bite in my mouth. It was just as I remembered, but I forced a smile on my face and declared, “Mm…this is good!” It hurt to fib like that…but I wasn’t as tactful as Pa.
“So what do you think? Would you buy my eggs?” I asked.
“Of course!” Lou said. “I can always use your eggs!” Lou smiled.
There was a knock on the back door. Lou opened it and Freddie hurried in. “Mark, come quick! Just wait until you see what’s coming! Hurry!” Freddie declared.
I hurried to the door. Lou yelled something behind me. If I had paid attention, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble later. “Oh Mark, your father was here and he wants you…” her voice died off. She knew I didn’t hear a word she had spoken.
I followed Freddie past the church. Suddenly, we stopped. “WOW!” I declared. Wagon after wagon packed with all sort of supplies came in. There was a long, long line as they hauled railroad steel and other supplies for the railroad. My eyes grew big as my mouth opened in surprise. I felt like a six year old boy who was witnessing seeing an elephant for the first time. “WOW!” I declared again.
Freddie and I looked at each other. Then he ran up to the train of wagons. “Hey mister, what’s all this?” I asked one of the men working the horses from the ground.
“We’re building the railroad, boy!” he answered.
“You mean it’s here?” I asked. “They finally got it all settled?”
“Yes siree!” the man answered. “We’ll start on it first thing tomorrow! Why, in mere months, a train will be making its way down the tracks right in this very spot!”
“Months?” Freddie and I said in unison.
“Months!” the man repeated. He held out his hand. “Name’s Gangling…John Gangling.” I shook it as I stared at him. “And your name?”
“McCain, sir…” I swallowed. “M…Mark McCain!” He waved and then moved on. Freddie and I ran back to see how long the line of wagons were. We finally got to the end and saw a bunch of men walking. “They must be the one’s they’re hiring!” I declared.
“Yeah…” Freddie sighed and shook his head. “Too bad we ain’t a little older! Then we could get jobs laying steel!”
I nodded. “Say...let’s follow them! See how far they go! I’d love to ask ‘em some questions about the railroad!”
Freddie and I walked beside them. The men were being hired as the wagons came through. I saw several men from the high country that had joined up. I felt like I was part of a parade or something, walking beside them. “Ya suppose there’s any work for us?” Freddie asked.
“Well…I could carry water to the workers or…do lots of other jobs! I’m sure they would let us, though I would rather work the railroad. Must be something to be able to lay steel.” Suddenly the train stopped. Freddie and I hurried up the line to see what was going on. Mr. Gangling was talking to some more men, signing them on at the spot. The train started up again and we walked beside the wagons. “Say…we were wondering if you could use us.”
“Your too young, boys,” Mr. Gangling apologized.
“For laying rail, maybe, but we could be water boys or…or…we could run errands for you – anything!”
“Yeah!” Freddie declared. “My Pa’s a blacksmith and he says I’m getting to be strong just like him!” Freddie declared. “I’m sure we could do some work like…maybe on Saturdays or something!”
Mr. Gangling smiled. “I tell you what. You talk to your Pa’s, and I’ll hire you for four hours on Saturday. You’ll earn a quarter a day!”
We walked beside Mr. Gangling quietly for a bit. Then I asked, “Where you camping at?”
“We’re building our headquarters out there a ways. That’s where we’ll start the railroad. Line Shack 6 will be us.”
“What do you have to do first?” I asked.
Mr. Gangling chuckled again. “Well…we have to break the ground then lay the foundation. Then we lay down the railroad ties before laying down the steel. Of course there’s different kinds of steel. There’s…” he stopped and looked behind me.
I turned. Pa was standing behind me with his arms crossed. He looked really mad. “Pa!” I gasped. “I was just on my way…”
I didn’t get a chance to say anymore. Pa reached out and grabbed me by the arm. He grabbed Freddie by the other. “Do you know we’ve been looking for you two? We were just about to get a search party out!”
“We haven’t been gone that long! Why…” I started.
“It’s past five o’clock, son. What are you doing way out here?” I watched Mr. Ganling’s retreating figure as he moved along with the wagons. “Well, answer me boys!”
“Pa, the railroad’s coming! They’re gonna start building the railroad tomorrow. They’ve hired lots of men. He even told me and Freddie that we could…”
“You’ll have plenty to keep you busy at home, boy!” Pa said. “Do you know I lost a whole afternoon of work because of you? Then tonight I was hoping to get started on separating some of the cattle. But instead, I find you out here…” Pa swept his hands along the line of wagons that were still passing us.
“But Pa, it’s the railroad!” I declared. “Look at it all! Pa, I want to watch them break ground in the morning! And then they said…”
“You get on up that hill, boy!” Pa gave me a push as he shook his head. “Just wait until I get you home! I can’t believe you pulled a stunt like this.” All the way back to town, Pa walked right behind us and lectured us on the importance of responsibility.
I knew Freddie was in trouble the minute we turned the corner of the church. Mr. Toomey bolted forward. His face was red and he grabbed Freddie by the ear. “Just wait until I get you home! Your gonna get a whipping!” I heard Mr. Toomey declare.
I didn’t say a word. Instead, I made my way to Blue Boy and started to mount him. “You get on home and start on your homework, boy. I’m going to get myself something to eat.”
“Well…what about supper?” I asked.
“What about it?” Pa shot back.
“Yes sir.” I mounted Blue Boy.
“Mark.” Pa walked forward. “You can…get a sandwich when you get home.”
“Yeah. And while I’m eating that, I think about you eating Miss Lou’s fried pork chops!”
“You do that.”
When I got home, I fixed a sandwich and sat down to do my homework. It wasn’t long before I heard a knock at the door. Mr. Gangling was there. “Well, I was hoping this was you.”
“Can..can I help you?” I asked.
“We’re going to need some beef for the men. I was told to look up your father and see about buying some from him. He’s head of the cattle association, isn’t he?”
“Yes sir.” I nodded. “Head of the town council…head of the cattleman’s association…My Pa is a busy man! Come on in.” I led Mr. Gangling to the table where I was doing my homework. “I hope I’m not keeping you.”
“From this?” I asked. I closed my grammar book harder than I intended. “Not at all!” I stood up. “Would you like some coffee?” Mr. Gangling nodded. I filled a cup and gave it to him. “Pa stayed in town at the restaurant. I have a feeling he’ll be late in getting home. You see, the woman that runs it…she’s awful pretty and Pa…well…anyhow, she’s a mighty fine cook and…”
Mr. Gangling chuckled. “I can only imagine. I’ve met Miss Mallory. I don’t blame your father a bit for staying in town.”
“Say, while we wait…maybe you could tell me about the railroad.”
“Well now…what do you want to know?” Mr. Gangling asked as he sat back in his chair and sipped from his cup. “You know, soon we’ll be able to travel from the East coast all the way to the West! We’re building a line through here and it’ll reach all the way down to the Mexican border and all the way up to the Canadian border. Then we’ll extend it out further West.”
I smiled as I listened to him talk. He had such dreams for the railroad – such hopes for the future. He said he made money over fist working as foreman form Line Shack 6. I smiled as I just sat and listened.
Then we heard a horse rapidly approaching. “That must be Pa now!” I stood and hurried to the door. Opening it, I greeted Pa as he walked in. “Pa, this is Mr. Gangling.” Pa and Mr. Gangling shook hands.
“Mark, can you pour me a cup of coffee, son?” I nodded and did as told. “Good. Now you can go on to bed.”
I turned and looked at Mr. Gangly. I felt a bit embarrassed with Pa sending me to bed. I knew it was already 8:15, and this morning, Pa had told me my bedtime would be 8:00. “Yes sir.”
But I couldn’t sleep. I wondered how I could convince Pa to let me work for Mr. Gangling for only four house on Saturdays. Oh, it would be so exciting to work for the railroad – even if it was to just carry water or run errands and such. I heard Pa as he said good-bye to Mr. Gangling. Then I heard the door close. I hurried to the window in time to see Mr. Gangling get on his horse and ride away.
Just then, the door opened. “Mark!” Pa exclaimed. I turned and hurried back to my bed. Pa came inside and sat down on my bed. “Oh, it is exciting I suppose, son. You know, when I was a boy, I remember when a wagon train moved through Oklahoma. Boy…it sure was something.” Pa shook his head. “My Pa had sent me to bed long ago and I just had to sneak out of the house – through my bedroom window – so I could sneak down the path behind the house and look in on the circle they were staying in. I remember imagining that I was in the wagon train. In fact, I made plans to ask my father to let me go the very next day.”
“You snuck out your bedroom window?” I asked. I remembered doing that a few times, but I didn’t get away with it one single time. All it got me was a good yelling and a big punishment. “Did you get caught?”
“Of course not…” Pa answered. Then he smiled. “…at first. My brothers woke up to find me gone. They wasted no time in telling my folks about it. My Pa took me straight to the woodshed and tanned my hide.”
I smiled as I sat in bed talking with Pa. But Pa lost his smile. “Now, since you are still awake, my prodigal son…there are a few things I want to say to you. First of all, son, I told Lou that if she saw you to remind you to get straight home after school. Second of all, I did not appreciate someone riding all the way to my ranch from town to tell me that you had to stay the afternoon.”
“Lou didn’t tell me!” I declared.
“Since I wanted you home right after school, son…I assume you would realize that you needed to come home right after school.”
“Yes sir. But then the railroad arrived and…” My voice died as Pa raised his eyebrows and stared at me. “Yes sir.”
“And your running off like that without telling anyone where you are going…” Pa started.
“I know I was wrong, Pa. I reckon I was just excited.”
“Yes.” Pa nodded. “Well, for the next four Saturdays, you will be here with assigned chores. And while you are here with assigned chores, perhaps you can think on what it means to be a man with responsibilities.”
“Does that mean I can’t work for the railroad?” I asked.
“Of course you can’t work for the railroad, Mark! You are a 14 year old boy!”
“I know, but it was just…” I started.
“NO!” Pa answered. He stood up. “Now, go to sleep!”
Well…that was the end of that!
So for the next four Saturdays, I was stuck with extra chores. It was a busy time of year. During my spring break, I had to plant the garden, plant the wheat field, and many other spring chores. Now, I had to work in the garden and wheat field and check the cattle daily. It was three weeks since I received my latest punishment that I was out checking cattle. Suddenly, I heard a mother cow crying.
I hurried further out onto the range. She was trying to deliver and was having a lot of difficulty. I bent down behind her and realized the calf was breached. I ran and jumped on Blue Boy. Then I hurried back to the ranch. “Pa!” I called. “Pa, Pa!”
Pa hurried out of the barn. He quickly put his shirt on and started buttoning it up. “What’s the matter?”
“One of our cows…she’s having trouble birthing! You’re gonna hafta get the ropes!” Pa jumped on Razor and we rushed off into the field.
When we got there, the cow was crying even louder. She was quickly weakening. Pa bent down behind and examined her. “The calf is twisted son.” He looked up at me. I turned my head away. “I’m sorry, son. If I don’t do it, we’ll lose them both.” I hated watching the sight. Pa had to do this before – when the cows came down with hoof and mouth. I didn’t like watching it then. “We’re going to have to cut the calf out, son. It’s the only way!”
I shook my head. “We can’t!” I cried. “We just…we can’t!”
Pa grabbed my shoulders. He looked into my tear-filled eyes. “We are ranchers, son. This is part of ranching. We have no choice.” Pa ran back to his saddle bag and got the knife. I knew the cow was about to die. I held her head in my lap. Pa looked up at me with sorrowful eyes. Then he lifted the knife as the cow let out one last, long cry.
I didn’t realize it, but I had closed my eyes when it happened. “Son, come here!” Pa said suddenly. I looked down at the cow. She was gone. I wiped my eyes and walked to the back of the cow. Then I bent down beside Pa. I helped pull the calf the rest of the way out. Pa finished up with the birthing as I started cleaning off the calf. She cried from hunger and I wiped my tears again with the back of my gloved hand.
“She needs milk, Pa.” Pa wiped his forehead with his gloved hand. “We’ll see if one of the other cows will take her, son. Suckling from the cow will be best for him.”
It was a hard afternoon. When Pa dismissed me from my work, I slowly turned and walked toward the pond, once again needing to seek solace in the still, calm waters.
Pa soon joined me. He sat down beside me and didn’t say a word. “You think it’s silly.”
“What?” Pa asked as he put his arm around my shoulders.
“My crying over a cow.”
Pa smiled. I turned and looked at him in surprise. “No, son. You’re so much like your mother. Your heart is sensitive. I like that in you.” Pa leaned back on the bank, propping himself up with his elbows. “You know Mark, your mother loved animals. You favor her so much that I always wondered how you’d make out when it came to things like this. You’ll learn to accept it as a part of ranching in time. And if you don’t…” Pa sighed. “Well…I suppose there are other avenues for you.”
“Speaking of avenues, Pa…” I turned to him. “I’ve been trying to find the right time to ask you this.”
“No. You cannot work for the railroad – even if you weren’t on restrictions. It’s no place for a 14 year old boy.”
I shook my head. “This isn’t about the railroad, Pa. It’s about…” I cocked my head to one side. “…chickens.”
“Chickens?” Pa raised his eyebrows. “Oh no…I was hoping you’d give up that notion.”
“What notion?” I asked as I straightened up.
“The one Lou told me about. You want to take my barn over with chickens.” I opened my mouth to speak. Pa held up a hand. “How are you going to make money? Off of selling eggs?”
“Well…I’ll raise chickens, collect eggs, sell the eggs to Lou…and anyone else who wants them…Then I’ll sell chickens too.”
“You gonna sell them…live?” Pa asked. “Or are you going to kill and clean them?”
“I reckon I can kill and clean them.” Pa chuckled and shook his head. I watched as he drew his knees up to his chest and looked out over the water. “What’s so funny?”
“Mark…” Pa stopped and licked his lips. Then he turned and looked at me. “Tell me something…how many chickens have you killed?”
“When you want fried chicken for supper, who takes care of the killing?” Pa asked.
“Well…you do, Pa. But that’s only because you can get them in one hard whack with the axe. Me...it would just render them in pain. I…”
“I watch you, Mark. You turn your head and look away.”
“Pa, I’ll admit I don’t like that part too much. I mean…watching a chicken run around the yard with its head chopped off…It just seems so…Well…I just don’t like it!”
“It’s all part of the job, Mark.” Pa stated.
“Well, I don’t like it! I think that someday they should come up with nicer ways to kill a chicken! Like maybe just give them something to put them to sleep and they never wake up…That would be a lot better than…than…” I screwed my face up. “Then chopping their heads off!”
“And yet you want to raise chickens?” Pa shook his head. “Part of farming and raising a crop is harvesting, son. And though you simply pick or dig the vegetables and fruits from the garden, to harvest animals you have to end their lives. Cows and pigs are slaughtered…chickens are axed…”
“Pa, don’t say it like that!” I cried. “That makes it sound so…insensitive!”
Pa chuckled. “Alright, son. We’ll build an extension onto the barn where you can make some roosts. We’ll give it a try, but you are responsible for ALL the work – from collecting the eggs to feeding and CLEANING the barn – to uh…the harvest.” Pa tapped my shoulder. “I just want you to think on it for a few more days.” Pa stood up. “Well, I have to go over and see Jackford. He’s selling two of his cattle to Line Shack 6 crew tonight and I have to deliver them.”
I smiled as Pa patted me on the back. “Pa?” Pa turned. “Can I go with ya?”
Pa nodded. “I reckon I could use a hand.” He put his arm out to me and I walked into it. We walked toward the ranch arm-in-arm.
I had a surprise waiting for me when I got home Monday afternoon. Pa had the extension to the barn started. I stripped my shirt off, picked up the hammer, and joined in on the fun. We spent every afternoon that week working on the project. Each day seemed hotter than the one before, but by Friday I was smiling with the progress. I had started spreading word in town that I would be selling eggs for ten cents a dozen, and Pa had allowed me to take out some of my money from the bank to buy more chickens from a local farmer who was getting rid of some. They were right fine laying hens, and I even got another rooster!
Friday afternoon, the sun beat down hot. Pa’s skin, browned by many years in the sun, sweated but didn’t seem to mind the sun. But my skin was much more sensitive. Pa noticed I was getting a little red. “You best put your shirt back on, son. I’ll have to put some aloe on your burn tonight. I never could go without my shirt for very long and wondered if my skin would ever be as tough as Pa’s. He told me I had fare skin like my Ma’s and it would probably always be that way. “But,” he told me once. “How much you work outside, maybe it’ll toughen up yet.”
Pa continued working as I hurried to the house to put my shirt on. As I was coming out, I saw a buggy approaching. I hurried up to help Miss Lou down. “Well, thank you, Mark.” She smoothed her skirt out.
“I’m…guessing you’re here to see Pa.”
“No Mark. Actually, I’ve come to see you. I’ve need for some eggs and I thought I would come see if you have any for me? I could use about four dozen. You see, the railroad men are going to eat breakfast in town tomorrow and I don’t keep enough eggs to feed that many men.”
“Oh sure!” I declared with a smile. We walked toward the barn. As we walked around the corner to where the roosts were sitting, Pa rounded the corner. He and Lou ran smack into each other. “Oh!” Lou gasped. “Cowboy!” Lou’s hand pressed against his bare chest. Pa’s hands grasped her shoulders. As she looked up at him, her hand stayed resting on his chest.
I couldn’t keep the smirk off my face as she blushed and took a step backward. But her hand remained pressed against his chest as she stared at him. “I’m sorry, Lou.” Pa said. But Lou couldn’t say anything.
Finally, as if realizing she was touching his bare chest, she stepped away from him. I watched her eyes as they traveled up and down, admiring him. She threw a hand to her chest and sighed. “Oh my…” She subconsciously ran a hand through her hair and smiled as her eyes finally traveled back up.
Now, this whole thing transpired in a matter of a few seconds, but I caught everything and I couldn’t help but smile at Miss Lou’s reaction. Pa’s reaction was funny as well. He suddenly turned and reached for his shirt. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to buy some eggs,” Lou answered in her Irish brogue. “And if your puttin’ the shirt on for my benefit, don’t bother! I’ve seen many a bare chested man an’ they don’t bother me a bit!”
I smirked as I put a hand to my mouth. Pa turned and gave me the evil eye. I cleared my throat. “Oh…excuse me! I’ll go…um…go get those…eggs!”
I walked toward the barn door. When I turned, I saw Pa putting the shirt back over the fence. Pa put a hand to Lou’s back and Lou’s hand brushed up against his side. She was still glancing him up and down. I burst out laughing. “Mark, the eggs!” Pa ordered.
Five minutes later, I walked toward the house. Pa was sitting up on the porch drinking a glass of water. Lou was sitting right beside him smiling broadly. Lou told me to put the eggs in the back of the buggy. Then I sat down on the steps. But everything grew quiet. “Uh…why don’t you get to working on your project, son.”
“Oh, it can wait. I’m happy just sitting here and watching…er…listening.” I grinned to myself.
Pa sat the glass of water down with a little more force than necessary. He placed his hands on the arm of the chair and half-raised from the chair with a look that told me I was due for a good ear-pulling. I didn’t give him time. I jumped up and started down the steps. When I was a safe distance away, I turned and said, “Will you be uh…staying for supper? As you can tell, Pa could use some more fattening up!”
“Mark!” Pa shouted.
“Mark McCain!” Lou declared in a deep Irish accent.
I turned and ran.
Soon, I heard the buggy leave. Pa walked back around and started working. He didn’t say a word. I glanced over at him from the corner of my eyes but didn’t say anything. I just grinned like a possum.
“What’s got you acting like you just got caught tying a rope around the outhouse?” Pa suddenly asked.
I suddenly burst out laughing. When I saw Pa’s raised eyebrows, I desperately tried to choke the laughter down. “Pa, how do you feel about Miss Lou?”
“I like her,” Pa answered. I grinned at him. “She’s a friend, son.”
“A friend?” I asked. Then I lowered my voice a bit. “Or…a friend?”
“We are just friends, Mark. We’re really…good friends.” Pa hammered a nail into the board with a bit of force.
“You courtin’ her?”
“Well…” Pa hanged the hammer over the side of the board. Then he turned and looked at me. “I don’t see where that’s really any of your business, but we’ve gone out a few times.”
“And uh…is she just your friend?” I asked then.
“What are you talking about?” Pa asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Well…” I shrugged my shoulder. “I just couldn’t help but notice that she was very pleased to see you with your shirt off. In fact, she was blushing and…” I allowed the rest to die as Pa’s eyes narrowed at me. “She finds you attractive, Pa. There’s no two ways about it.”
“And this is none of your business!” Pa reminded me again.
“You find her attractive…don’t you?” I asked then.
“Mark!” Pa shouted. I lost my smile outside, but still smiled inside. Pa sighed. “Go pull weeds from the vegetable garden!”
“Pa, can I help if I’m a teenager? After all…” I started.
“…After all, just because you are a teenager, don’t think I can’t bend you over my knee, boy!” Boy, he sure was getting riled! He pointed toward the garden. “Now GO!”
I thought it best to drop the matter all together…for now…
I was on my last Saturday of restrictions. I was hoping Pa would let me off early today so I could go watch the railroad being built, but Pa shook his head when I asked about it. He said my restriction would be lifted at 5:00. Then the next day – Sunday – we went to church. We were inside the restaurant after church when Lou brought a great big roast chicken and set it in the middle of the table. I involuntarily licked my lips. “Well, it appears someone is excited about my chicken!” Lou put her hands on her hips. “Seems more excited about my chicken than he seems about my apple pie!”
“Well Lou, your chicken tastes lots better than your apple pie!” I declared. Suddenly, I felt a hard kick under the table. “Ow!” I cried out as I rubbed my shin. I looked Pa in the eye and he moved his eyes toward Lou. I cleared my throat. “I…I’m sorry, Miss Lou. That didn’t exactly come out right! I…I…”
Lou had her hands on her hips and her lips pressed together. “And just WHAT is wrong with my apple pie, young man?”
“Uh…uh…uh…” I grasped for an answer. “I just meant that I like chicken more than apple pie.” Again, I felt a kick under the table. “Ouch!” I rubbed my shin again.
Pa stood up and grabbed the knife. “I’ll do the honors, Lou. Please…sit down.” I could feel Lou’s eyes on me as she took the seat beside me. I had just been lifted from restrictions yesterday! I prayed this wouldn’t find me right back there again!
Pa put chicken on the first plate and held it up for someone to take. I reached out for it. Pa would have kicked me again if he could. This time though, he just snapped the plate away and declared that we were served last.
Half way through the meal, I started messing with my tie. I loosened it enough that I didn’t feel like it was choking me anymore, but it was still really stuffy. That was in part to the sour look Lou continued to give me. Somehow, I felt I needed to appease her. “Gee Lou,” I declared as I swallowed my food. “This chicken sure is good! Of course, I like your chicken more than anyone else’s in the world!” I cleared my throat as Pa raised an eyebrow at me. “Why, Pa swears by your cooking!”
Again, I felt a hard kick under the table. “Oh, he does, does he?” Lou asked.
You know…today was just one of those days – I couldn’t win no matter what I said! After the third kick, I decided to keep my mouth shut. I reckon that’s what Pa wanted me to do.
Lou eventually brought out the chocolate cake. I took a bite of the cake and closed my eyes in satisfaction. “Now, this is good, Lou! I’d rather have this than-“
“Don’t say it!” Pa and Micah both said at the same time.
“Yeah. My shin IS getting a little sore!” I declared as I rubbed it. I quickly finished off my cake. “Say Pa, I’m going to go outside now, okay?”
“Excuse me?” Pa raised his eyebrows.
“Oh…I’m sorry.” I loosened my tie a little more. “May I be excused?”
“Where are you going?”
“Outside. I thought I’d join Freddie this afternoon. Can I?”
“Alright.” I excused myself. “Mark?” I turned. “Don’t get your Sunday clothes dirty!”
“Oh Pa! I’m not a kid!”
“Some days I wonder…” Pa declared with a shake of his head.
As soon as I stepped outside I saw Freddie calling to me. I hurried over to him. “Wanta go watch the railroad?” he asked.
“Okay.” I jerked off my tie and Sunday jacket. “That’s better! I told Pa I was going to hang out with you, but I didn’t tell him what we were planning on doing.”
“Me neither!” Freddie declared. “Ma don’t much care for the railroad men working on Sundays.”
“Yeah. Last night, Pa said that he thought God deserved one day of rest. He didn’t think they were good influence for me. I’m 14 years old for crying out loud!”
We hurried out of town on foot. I had left my jacket and tie in the back of the wagon as we made our way toward the railroad. I reminded myself to be back in town by 4:00. Pa wanted to get home right after the Cattleman’s Association meeting.
We traveled quite a ways. There we saw a familiar face. He was resting under a tree for a few minutes while drinking some water. “Johnny Wing!” I declared as I ran to sit down beside him. “I haven’t seen you since you helped Pa out a couple months back!”
“Hi, Mark.” Johnny put the lid back on his canteen and smiled at me. “What you kids doing here?”
“We came to watch the work!” I declared. “I bet it’s a lot of fun laying steel?”
“Fun? No. It’s hard work. Hard, hard work.” I lost part of my smile as Johnny spoke tiredly. “I work seven days a week…little rest…little pay. Hard work…very hard work.”
Then he stood up and went back to the track. “I sure wish my Pa would let me work here!” I declared with a shake of my head as we sat and watched them work. “I explained to him that it would be just passing out water or running errands, but he was very firm on the matter. A very firm no.”
“Yeah.” Freddie picked up a stick and started drawing in the dirt. “My Pa was going to let me until he talked to your Pa. Then when he found out how your Pa felt about it, he told ME no. If we could get your Pa to change his mind….” Freddie started.
“Forget it, Freddie.” I sighed. “I asked him again last night. He told me that the next time I ask, I would find myself back on restrictions. Ya know…I don’t even remember exactly what I DID last time to get on that month of restrictions.”
“I do!” Freddie exclaimed. “We followed the train of wagons and didn’t tell anybody where we were. Remember?”
“Oh. Right. Of course, that wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t been kept in the afternoon at school and then forgot to get straight home. That’s what did me in. You know what Pa said to me a couple days later? He told me that at the age of 14, I was getting too old to find myself in this kind of trouble. I told him I agreed with him completely!” I shook my head. “I wonder when Pa’s stop punishing their kids…”
Freddie sighed. “I made the mistake of asking Pa that once. He said as long as he lives and breathe, he has the right to yell at me whenever I do something wrong – no matter if I have a wife and ten kids! Then my Ma piped up that once I was married, my wife would do plenty of yelling when I did something wrong!”
We stood and walked over to the railroad. I watched as men lifted heavy steel from the back of the wagon and laid it on the track. “Hey, how heavy is that?” I asked as they grunted to carry it.
“Heavy!” Jonny declared as they gently laid it down.
“What do ya have to do now?” I asked excitedly as we watched.
“We have to hammer it in,” Johnny answered.
We watched as they used big sledge hammers to drive the spikes through the steel. Freddie and I stared, mesmerized. But we didn’t get to watch for long. A man came down the way announcing they could go to the line shack and get their pay. “You’ll be back today?” I asked excitedly.
“Not until after four o’clock,” Johnny answered. We groaned. I tried to lift the sledge hammer, but grunted as I sat it back down. “That things heavy!” I declared.
“How do they do it?” Freddie asked. “I bet ya our Pa’s ain’t even that strong!”
“My Pa is!” I declared. “My Pa…”
“…can do anything!” Freddie rolled his eyes. “Of course he can, Mark. Come on, let’s go!”
We got back into town just as the meeting was getting over. Freddie hurried away as I climbed up on the seat. “What have you and Freddie been up to?” Pa asked.
“Just hanging around,” I answered as I started up the team.
After school the next day, I hurried into town and went straight to Micah’s office as directed. I wanted to get home because Mr. Griswald had given me something to think about on my chicken project. “Hey Pa, you ready-“ My voice died as I saw that Pa was in a serious conversation.
“Oh Micah, I just can’t believe Johnny Wing would kill Charlie! I just can’t believe it!” Pa declared angrily. “He worked for me. I trusted him with my own son. He even worked for Lou. We never had any trouble. It just doesn’t make and sense!”
“Johnny Wing?” I interrupted as I hurried forward. “What about Johnny Wing?”
“He apparently killed a man this morning, Mark,” Micah answered.
He started to turn back toward Pa, but I rushed to Micah and grabbed him by the arms. “No, Micah! No! He couldn’t have. He-he’s too nice!”
“We’re not saying he did, son. That’s what we’ve been told,” Pa started.
“Why, I just saw him yesterday! Just yesterday!” I declared.
“Yesterday?” Pa folded his arms and sat on the desk. “Where at?”
I suddenly realized it was confession time. “Where they were building the railroad,” I said quietly.
“You went to the railroad line outside the county?” Pa asked angrily.
“I thought I told you I didn’t want you going there, Mark. Well, didn’t I?” Pa yelled.
“Ye-yes sir…” I swallowed. “P-Pa, I saw Johnny there and he was working hard. He didn’t act like he was upset at anybody.”
“Mark, I gave you an order and-“
“Lucas Boy!” Micah held up his hand to stop Pa from yelling. He turned back to me. “Now Mark, Mr. Gangling stated that he saw Johnny standing over the body of Charlie with the money in hand. Did Charlie say anything to you about needing money?”
I stared at Micah. Then I turned and looked at Pa. “No…” I said quietly. Then I backed up and stared at them both again. “NO!” I hurried over to Pa and grabbed his arms. “Pa, you know Johnny! Why, he wouldn’t kill for money any…anymore than you would! You know Johnny don’t hold much account in money!”
“I know, Mark. But we have to find him. If we don’t…” Pa stopped.
“What?” I asked. Pa and Micah looked at each other but remained silent. “What?”
Pa sighed. “If we don’t, son…If Gangling’s men find him first – they’ll probably kill him.
“Pa…Micah…you have to find him! You just have to!” I declared.
“Alright, son. Calm down.” Pa stood up and grabbed his rifle. He pointed straight at me. “I want you to go home and stay there. We’ll talk about your actions later. I’ll be home by supper.”
“Pa, if you find him, you’ll make sure to prove him innocent, right?” I asked.
Pa nodded with his hand on the door. “We’ll do our best son.” He held the door open for me and nodded toward my horse. I watched him and Micah quickly ride out of town.
I rode home and started on my chores. I fretted all afternoon about Johnny Wing. I certainly did hope Pa and Micah found him. As I started inside to start supper, I heard a buggy approaching. I smiled when I realized it was Lou. I hurried to the buggy and helped her down. “Pa’s not working outside today, Lou,” I said with a grin.
Lou wagged a finger at me. “You just watch yer tongue, young man!” she declared with a shake of her head. “Less you want me to bend you over my knee!” I led her inside. “The fact of the matter is, I came to see you – not your father!”
“See me?” I cocked my head to one side. “For what?”
“Well…” Lou took her riding gloves off and sat them on the desk. “I’ve come to sign up for regular egg delivery.“
“Oh!” I smiled. “What happened to the person who was giving you the eggs?”
Lou shook her head. “I do declare, Mark! You ask too many questions! My dear ol’ father used to say ‘When one makes an offer of business, don’t ask too many questions.’ Now, do you want me to buy eggs from you regular or not?”
“Oh…sure, Miss Lou!” I declared. “How many would you like?”
“Well…let’s see…You jest started your business up so about three dozen a day would do for now.” She nodded. “Yes…three dozen a day! Will that do?”
“Well…yes but…I’ve got some figruin’ to do first, Lou. In fact, I was just about to start that.”
“Well…while I’m here I might as well cook you two a decent meal.” She went into the kitchen. “Now, if you’ll just get me a chicken, I’ll cook ye up a fine meal of chicken an’ dumplin’s!”
Lou started going through the cupboards. I lost my smile. “Uh…chicken?”
“Mm hm!” Lou answered.
“Oh…uh…” I swallowed.
Lou turned. “Is something wrong with chicken?”
“Well…not exactly, Miss Lou. But we don’t exactly have any chicken to cook.”
“Well, there’s a whole mess of ‘em out in the yard!” She stated.
“I know but…but they’re alive!”
Lou put her hands on her hips and turned toward me. “Mark McCain! Are you telling me that you can’t take an ax to a chicken?”
“Well…” I licked my lips nervously. “I…”
Lou wiped her hands on the dish towel and sighed. “Bring me the ax, Mark.” She walked outside toward the chopping block.
“Oh…” I turned and stared at her. “Huh?”
“I said bring me the ax.”
“But Miss Lou! You can’t…” I started.
“Oh?” She pressed her lips together. “You don’t think I can ax a chicken? Well, I’ll have ya know that I’ve done it afore!”
“Nevermind that! Just bring me an ax!” I shook my head as I watched her catch a nice, fat chicken and proceed over to the chopping block. She just sat that chicken right up there and offed his head without a second thought! I of course had to turn my head when she did the feat. I hated seeing that poor chicken’s life end that way! “There!” Lou declared after the chicken had settled down and she had it hanging upside down by its feet. “Now, bring me a butcher knife!”
I hurried into the kitchen and grabbed the knife. I turned away as she started cutting it up. “I can’t believe you are so skirmish, Mark!”
“Yeah…” I sighed. “Pa said I get it from my mother.” I shook my head. “Don’t reckon I’ll ever be axing any chickens!”
I brought Lou a bowel to put the meat in. Then she carried it into the house and started fixing supper. I went out to work on the evening chores. It was getting dark by the time I came back inside. I walked into the kitchen and sniffed the air. “Sure smells good in here, Miss Lou. I’m supposing you’re trying to fatten Pa up some more?”
“I’d say he’s fattening up quite nicely,” she mumbled. Suddenly, she placed a hand to her mouth. I grinned as I watched her face turn red. “What I mean is…I’ve notice…I mean…” Lou suddenly turned back to the stove.
I stood up from the table and walked over to her. I had to laugh. “Gee, Miss Lou. I don’t rightly remember you ever being short on words!”
She turned and glared at me with her lips pressed tightly together. “You…go do your figuring!” she ordered.
I sat down at the table and started figuring. Mr. Griswald helped me figure that a chicken laid about 100 eggs a year. I was thinking on letting those eggs hatch and having chickens. Let’s see…I currently had 30 good laying hens, which gave me about three dozen eggs a day. So, if I let those eggs hatch that would give me…
I stared at my figure. 3,000 chickens in a year? Wow! I would have to build a bigger chicken coop for sure! “Well, I finally got it all figured out, Miss Lou!” I declared. I would let them hatch this first year.
“Raise cooking hens instead?” Miss Lou asked.
“Not for cookin’! A chicken only brings 12 cents clean and that’s work. But a chicken all by itself can lay 100 eggs a year. So I figured if I let ‘em hatch instead of making money this first year, then I got one hundred times as many eggs the second!” Lou figured that made sense.
I picked up the plates and started setting the table. “Pa sure is gonna be surprised to see a regular woman's meal when he gets here.” I paused. “Uh…not that he objects to my cookin’…much!” In truth, he did. He always declared that he hoped I’d get married so I’d have a wife to do the cooking.
Lou casually mentioned that if she had some eggs right now, she could make a cake for dessert. “There’s probably half a dozen in the roost,” I announced. She thought that would be fine. I smiled mischievously. “’Course I can always squeeze a hen or two if you want some more.”
Lou didn’t like what she was hearing. She turned and gave me yet another one of her stern looks. “You can do what???”
I grinned. “Why sure! It’s an old farmer’s trick. You just grab the hen by the legs, turn it upside down and-“ I stopped when I saw the look on her face. I smiled even more. “Awwww, I bet you used to do the same thing all the time back in Ireland!”
She shook the wooden spoon at me. “I’m going to turn you upside down, young man, if you don’t stop joking and go get those eggs!”
Boy, I think she was serious! I laughed and went to do as ordered. I walked out to the barn and started to gather the eggs, but I suddenly heard a noise. I knew I wasn’t alone in the barn. I looked towards the door and decided to make my getaway, but as I started to leave Johnny Wing jumped out, holding a knife on me. “I need a horse, Mark!”
I gasped. I found myself afraid of him. "I can't help you Johnny...they’re looking for ya'!"
“I didn’t do it, Mark! I didn’t!” Johnny declared. I told him to give himself up. “They’ll kill me! It’s the law of the camp! A thief is hanged within the hour.”
I didn’t’ know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t handle this situation by myself.
"Help!" I yelled as I tried to leave.
“Don’t yell again!” Jonny ordered.
“It wouldn’t be right for me to help ya…But I can go get Marshal Torrance if you want me to,” I tried. Again, I tried to leave, and again Johnny stopped me. Johnny said he was taking a horse and I was going to saddle it for him.
“If you weren’t guilty, you’d give yourself up,” I told him.
Lou arrived at the barn and heard the commotion. She could tell someone was threatening me. Protectively, she grabbed a pitchfork and held it up as a weapon. “Get away from that boy!” she yelled. But as he turned, Johnny passed out. Lou told put the pitchfork down when she realized it was Johnny. She ordered me to go inside and get some hot water and bandages.
I did her bidding as quickly as I could. When I got back out there, she had Johnny’s wound exposed and was cleaning out. “Ye got a medicine box?” she asked. I nodded. “Bring it here.” She started digging through it. When she found the medicine she was looking for, she quickly started bandaging him up. Johnny woke up and began mumbling. “Just lay still, Johnny. Just lay still.”
“He’s wanted, Lou,” I whispered. “At Line Shack Six. They say he killed a man.”
“I know, Mark.” She pinned the bandage. “There. Now, you stay here and be quiet!” Johnny started to protest. “Shhh! I said stay here and be quiet. I’ll…figure something out.”
Lou nudged her head toward the door. We hurried back into the house. She was just finishing up supper when Pa rode up. “We’re gonna have to tell him sooner or later, aren’t we?” I asked.
She nodded. I didn’t want to be the one to rat on Johnny though. Pa greeted Lou as he put his rifle in its holder by the door.
“I thought that cooking I smelled was put together with a lighter touch than Mark’s!” Pa declared. He looked at me. I turned away. I knew I could not look into his eyes – not when I was hiding something! “No offense, son.”
“Oh…sure…” I said with my back toward him.
I listened as Miss Lou explained that she dropped by to sign up for eggs and decided to help with dinner. I could feel Pa’s eyes on me. “Oh, that’s mighty kind of you, Lou.” But he never took his eyes off of me. I wished he would! This was downright uncomfortable! “Something wrong, Mark?”
How could Lou be so relaxed and easy-going on this? Surely she knew that in Pa’s eyes withholding information was the say as lying. “No,” I answered with my back still toward him.
Lou came to my rescue by telling us to sit down so she could serve dinner. I knew Pa was still studying me. Any minute now, he’d start in on the third degree.
Lou came to my rescue again by asking Pa about the railroad camp. Pa declared that he couldn’t do anything – they’d shoot Johnny Wing on sight. I asked Pa if he thought he did it. Pa said he didn’t know him that well. Pa seemed to calm about the situation. “But it’s not right to hang him without a trial, Pa!” I declared angrily.
"Oh he'll get a trial son; it's just not the kind you're used to. But a vigilante committee is accountable for his actions,” Pa tried to explain. That still didn’t satisfy me though.
"Do you mean that Johnny Wing would have to be handed over to that...Mr. Gangling, same as to a marshal?" I asked then.
"That's the vigilante law and it's a rightful one I guess," Pa answered.
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I knew that if I didn’t tell him now…I’d be in trouble. “Pa…there’s something I want to tell ya…”
But just then, somebody hollered for Pa. Mr. Gangling’s posse was there. They found Johnny in the barn. Pa raised his rifle, ready for defense. Lou and I stood behind him. “You’re facing law officers, Mr. McCain.”
My heart sank. I hated to see Johnny in the company of these so-called law officers! I knew he wouldn’t get a fair trial! I just knew it.
Pa turned to me. He was not happy. I reckon he was smart enough to figure out that THAT is what I had been hiding from him. “Mark, did you know that Johnny Wing was in the barn?” he asked as he turned his head to the side.
"That's what I was about to tell you Pa,” I simply answered. From the way he looked at me, I figured I was facing more trouble.
Lou tried to stand up for me though. “It was my fault, Lucas.”
From the look Pa gave Lou, I’d say we were BOTH in trouble! She didn’t know it yet, but she was going to be here with me when Pa got back! If I was going down – she was going with me!
“Using a woman as an alibi may work on this side of the county line, don't try it in my jurisdiction!" Ouch! That wasn’t helping our case any at all! Mr. Gangling then threw two coins at Pa and told him not to deliver anymore.
Suddenly, Pa told me to ride into town and get Micah. He was going to go attend that trial. I didn’t waste any time. I hurried to saddle my horse and get going.
I rode into town as fast as I could. Being night, I had to trust Blue Boy’s instincts to get me there. When I got there, I walked up to the saloon and saw Micah in there drinking a beer. I hurried inside. Micah stood up. “What are you doing in here?” he asked. “Your Pa catches you and-“
I held up my hand. “Micah, they found Johnny Wing in our barn!” I gasped. “Pa went up to attend the trial! Micah, I’m afraid Pa’s in trouble!”
Micah jumped up and threw a quarter down on the bar. I followed him across the street to his office. He grabbed his shotgun and some shells. “Is it true they’ll hang him in the hour?” I asked. Micah nodded. “Could they hang Pa?”
“Not legally, but they’ll try.” Micah turned. “Did your…Pa…know he was hiding in the barn?”
I hung my head. “No sir.”
Micah cleared his throat. “Was somebody aiding and abetting him, Mark?”
“Well…” I swallowed hard. “Lou and I…sorta knew he was in there…”
“I’ll talk to you and Lou about your crimes later!” Micah declared.
I hurried out with him. “Micah, I’m coming with ya!” I jumped on my horse.
“No!” Micah declared.
“He’s my father!” I argued.
Micah grabbed Blue Boy’s rein to stop my forward motion. “That’s right! And if you show up there, your father with have my head on a silver platter for breakfast tomorrow morning! No siree! You go home and stay there! And tell Lou to stay put to – I’ll be talking to you two later!”
I watched as Micah raced off. Then I hurried back home.
When I got there, Lou was setting my plate on the table. “I kept it warm for ye. So just set yourself down here and eat!”
“Lou, I’m not hungry!” I declared. “Pa could be getting into trouble.”
“And ye think starving yourself of nourishment will help him? Sit down and eat!”
I sat down and started eating. Lou sat down beside me and cleared her throat. I bowed my head and allowed her to bless the food. “Micah said you’re to stay put. I told him we were hiding Johnny in the barn.”
“Oh…I expect him to be pretty upset.” We ate in silence. When I finished, I started to gather the dishes to wash. “Oh, no you don’t!” Lou declared as she lightly slapped my hand. “Ye go and to your homework!”
“Oh Lou, it can wait!” I declared. She pressed her lips together. Boy, adults must practice this stuff on each other to be so good at it! “Yes ma’am.” I grabbed my books and sat down at the table to study.
But I couldn’t concentrate! I stood up and hurried to look out the window. “I’m gonna go check on my chickens, Miss Lou!” I called before walking out the door. Inside the barn, I checked to see how many eggs I had to hatch. But as I lifted each chicken from it’s roost, I discovered that there were none! There should have been half a dozen to a dozen by now! What was going on? They weren’t laying yesterday either.
I walked out, closing the barn door around me securely. I walked toward the road and looked down, but I saw nothing coming. “Mark! Mark!” Lou called. I turned and walked toward the house. “Ye got your homework done?”
I sighed. “No ma’am. I can’t concentrate, Miss Lou!” I declared.
“Well, it’s getting near 9:00. You need to get to bed.”
“Oh…” I groaned. “But Miss Lou!”
“Go on with ye now!” Lou put her hands on her hips and followed me inside. “And make sure ye wash behind those ears!”
I rolled my eyes as I walked into my bedroom. It had been quite awhile since I had someone remind me to wash behind my ears! Miss Milly used to order that every night I spent at her house. It must be a woman thing. As I readied myself for bed, I heard Lou humming some Irish tune. I knew she was in the kitchen washing everything she could get her hands on. Milly used to do the same thing – she’d come over ever once and a while and give the house a good scrubbing. She used to say it needed a scrubbing like only a woman can give it.
I sat on the bed with the lantern on and waited for pa’s return. Each passing minute caused me more worry. Soon, there was a knock knock on the door. I scurried under the covers as the door opened. “Ye all ready for bed?” She moved over and began tucking the covers around me.
“Miss Lou, I’m not a child,” I reminded her.
“Now Mark! I’ve never had any children of my own, so if I want t fuss over the son of Lucas McCain once in awhile, you must let me have my way! After all, every growing boy needs a woman’s touch.”
When she was satisfied I was tucked in, she stood. “Goodnight, Mark. And don’t forget to say your prayers!” Then she blew out the light.
I ran a hand through my hair as I listened. How long would it be before Pa got back? I worried and wondered. It was a long time before I heard horses approaching. I ran to the window and looked out. By the placement of the moon, I guessed it was around midnight. Having school tomorrow, I knew pa would skin me if he knew I was still up. So I went back to bed, satisfied he was okay.
“Lou, what are you still doing here?” I heard Pa’s voice.
“Shhh, cowboy!” I heard Lou say in a low voice. Then she muffled some words I couldn’t hear.
I couldn’t stand it! I had to know what was being said. I quietly got out of bed and made my way to the door to eavesdrop. “Well, I’ll escort you back to town, Lou,” Micah was saying. “I’ll expect you and the boy in my office first thing in the morning! I have a few things to say to you!”
“So do I!” Pa declared. Suddenly, the bedroom door opened.
The door smacked me in the head and I fell flat on my back side. “Ow!” I declared as I put a hand to my head.
Pa glared at me and folded his arms. “And what are you doing awake, young man?”
“Pa, I was worried!” I tried to explain.
“Lucas, what-“ Lou started.
“It seems we have a spy in the house.” Pa shook his head. “Do you know what time it is?”
“But I was worried!” I said again. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come back! I didn’t know what-“
“So you wanted to eavesdrop to make sure they didn’t lynch me?” Pa raised an eyebrow.
“We’ll talk in the morning, son. For now…go to bed!” Pa demanded.
“Yes sir.” I watched as Lou and Micah both shook their heads at me. They too knew I was in trouble. Before long, I was fast asleep.
I could feel Pa’s yes boring into me the next morning as I sat there eating the mush Pa had prepared for me. He had his arms crossed on the table in front of him and was shaking his head from side to side. I decided to speak first. “So..ya gonna tell me what happened last night, Pa? Is Johnny okay?”
“Mm hm.” Pa took a sip of his coffee. “Mr. Gangling killed Charlie.”
I choked on my mush. “Mr. Gangling?” I narrowed my eyes at Pa. “Why?
“Because he had heard Charlie had every penny he’d ever earned in his money pouch. He got greedy and decided to kill Charlie and keep the money for himself.”
“He didn’t think he’d ever get caught?” Pa nodded. “How did he get caught?”
“Well, it just so happens that Charlie put teeth marks on his money. Mr. Gangling threw some of those to me tonight and I noticed the marks. The rest was found in his safe.”
“So Micah arrested him?” I asked.
“No.” Pa took another sip of coffee. “They killed him.”
Pa shook his head. “Shot.”
Pa shook his head again. “Self defense.”
Pa nodded. “He tried to kill me.”
“Oh.” Suddenly, I lifted my head up. “Oh! So, there WAS cause to worry after all! You see Pa, I…”
“Sorry, son, but you aren’t going to get off the hook. Now that we’ve discussed Gangling’s transgressions, let’s discuss Mark McCain’s.”
“You mean the eavesdropping?”
“And withholding information?” I asked then.
“And?” Pa raised his eyebrows.
“And sneaking off to the railroad camp?”
Pa nodded again. “And?”
“And? And what?” I asked.
“Just checking, son.” Pa took a sip of his coffee. He folded his arms and held up a finger to lecture me.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. When Pa opened it, we saw Lou and Micah standing there. “Wow, again?” I asked. “Here to cook Pa another fattening up meal? We just had mush this morning and I sure could use some-“
“Mark!” Pa ordered.
“We thought we’d come get this little ‘talk’ over with so Mark can get to school.”
“Oh, well Mark won’t be going to school today, Micah.” Pa turned and looked at me sharply. “He’s got some more important lessons to learn right here at home!”
I cringed as Pa said that very sternly while looking at me. I stood from the table and put my bowl in the sink. Then I stuffed my hands in my back pockets and turned around. “Now Lou, you’ve got to help me out here!” I declared. “Tell Pa and Micah how it really happened!”
We all sat down at the table. Lou told Pa and Micah about how we had found Johnny in the barn. “You should have told me as soon as I got in the door!” Pa declared. “Do you know how much trouble that got me in?”
“Pa, I was about to tell you when Mr. Gangling showed up!” I argued.
“You should have told me BEFORE, son. As soon as I walked in the door you had opportunity, but you didn’t tell me. I should bend both of you over my knee and give you a whipping!”
I suddenly began laughing at the image of Pa trying to give Lou Mallory a spanking. “What’s so funny?” Pa demanded angrily.
“Oh…I’m sorry, Pa.” I sobered up quickly, but still, that image remained in my 14 year old brain.
“Now, see here Lucas McCain! I was here with the boy and I made the decision to wait on telling you. I saw no reason to turn that boy over to those murdering no good-“
“That wasn’t your choice to make, Lou!” Pa declared sternly. Pa folded his arms and looked from Lou to me and back to Lou. “Now…Mark’s facing punishment for other crimes as well, so I’ll decide on his punishment after our company leaves. As for you, my pretty red-headed…” Pa closed his eyes before he finished the thought.
Lou slowly stood up from the table and folded her arms as she glared at Pa. “Red headed…WHAT?”
I chuckled and opened my mouth to answer, But Pa turned and held a finger up in front of my face. “Don’t you say a word!” He turned back to Lou. “I’m going to add this to Mark’s transgressions because he knows my rules – regardless of your intentions. And I can’t really do much to you since you are a full-grown woman. But you let me tell you something!”
“Lucas!” Micah suddenly intervened. “Now, you both were wrong in withholding information on the whereabouts of Johnny Wing…regardless of your intentions.” Micah turned to me. “I agree with your father – you should be punished. Your father could have found himself in a lot of trouble for what you did.”
“Now, wait a minute Micah.” Lou held up a hand. “Mark would have never known Johnny was in there if he hadn’t gone out to the barn to get some eggs. They would have STILL found Johnny…”
“Oh Lou, you gave his wound a woman’s touch and wrapped it in a bandage. They KNEW you had found him. And it doesn’t matter. The fact is that you WITHHELD information, and you involved my son in it!”
“Withholding information is a criminal offense!” Micah declared.
“Well!” Lou lifted her chin up higher. “Just the same…I don’t think you can blame the lad! After all, he was only respecting his elders like his father taught him to do.”
“Ha ha ha ha ha!” I laughed out loud. Pa turned and glared at me. I put a fist to my mouth. “Oh…excuse me, Pa.”
“I give up, Lucas!” Micah declared as he threw his arms up in the air and stood up. “I can’t talk any sense into her!”
“Micah, I take responsibility. I’m not saying I wasn’t wrong. All I’m saying is-“ Lou started.
“…that you don’t want Mark to get into trouble.” Pa shook his head. “I think it best, Lou, if you steer clear of any more mistakes like this. Micah’s letting you off the hook with a stern lecture this time. But next time…”
“Next time,” Micah said as he wagged a finger a Lou. “I’ll personally bend you over my knee and give you a whipping!”
I laughed out loud again. “I’d like to see that!” I declared.
“Mark!” Pa sighed. “Go pull weeds from the vegetable garden!”
“Yes sir.” I knew that Pa was saving me from a good whipping from himself by sending me out. I just couldn’t help it – I found the vision of the whole thing so funny! I worked in the garden for an hour when I finally saw Micah and Lou leave. Pa stepped out onto the porch. “Mark!” I straightened up and looked at him. “Get inside.”
I walked inside. Pa was sitting in his chair. “Have a seat, son.” I pulled out a chair from the table and sat down. Pa lit his cigar and took a long, relaxing puff off of it. “Now then…first things first. I specifically gave you orders not to go to the railroad line. Didn’t I?”
“Then why did you go?”
“Curiosity, I guess, Pa.” I sighed. “Pa, it’s not every day we get to see something so-“
“You knew you were doing wrong, Mark. It doesn’t matter if you disagreed with me – I still expect you to follow my orders. Those men do a lot of cussing and drinking down there. Even on Sunday, they’re living like it’s the middle of the week and I don’t cotton to my impressionable 14 year old son being there. Why, I’d rather you go into the North Fork saloon than there. You hear things…and see things…that you never get out of your head. And on Sunday, you are supposed to be reverent and reflecting on God. I doubt you were doing that down at the railroad line.”
“Yes sir,” I said quietly.
“You don’t agree with me?” Pa asked.
“No sir I don’t.”
“Well, out with it,” Pa demanded as he breathed out a loud sigh.
“Like you said, Pa, I’m 14 years old. I reckon I can handle whatever I come face-to-face with.”
“Understood. But the railroad line is still off-limits for you.” Pa declared. He took another long puff off his cigar. “Understood?”
“And you know your other crimes and why they were wrong.”
“Alright.” Pa stood and walked to the window. Slowly, he turned around. “Son, I need a few minutes.” I watched as Pa slowly shook his head.
I walked out to the porch and sat down. I figured it wouldn’t do me any good to go much further. My luck, the farther away I went, the more restrictions I was placed on.
It was about a half hour later when I heard the door open behind me. I started to stand, but felt Pa’s hand on my shoulder, pushing me to sit back down.
“Mark, you know what you did was wrong?”
“Yes sir, I’m sorry, it’d just that…”
“I know. I remember being 14 years old once.” I saw something in my Pa’s eyes that I wasn’t sure bode well for me.
“You just came off restrictions so the house is pretty clean, as is the barn. And the fence line is in are pretty good shape.”
My hopes swelled as I realized I was about to get away without any punishment.
“So right now, there’s not much I can order you to do to ‘pay’ for your transgressions.”
I wanted to jump up and holler until I heard that word, ‘However’.
“However, let’s just say this debt will be paid at a future date. One day, when I have need of a man for a day, you’ll be that man. No pay, no allowance, just hard, plain, sweat off your brow.”
“Guess I got that comin’ to me,” I acted a little dejected, but still, that was better than being restricted.
“Court’s adjourned. Go on and check on the stock.”
I jumped up and started to run to the barn, but stopped and turned around.
“Pa, I’ll pay you back. I promise, I’ll be a real good worker, when that day comes.”
Pa smiled and moved his hand to tell me to ‘go on’.
I went out to the barn and tended to the horses and cleaned their stalls. Then I fed the hogs. Later I went to check on my chickens . I shook my head as I looked in each roost and realized some of the chickens hadn’t laid. I didn’t understand what could be going wrong! Then I started feeling guilty. Here I was worrying about these stupid chickens when I should be so very happy to have my Pa home safe and a father who loves me enough to discipline me and help me grow up right.
I remembered back to the night before and how I worried. Now that seemed so far away as I worried about the chickens and why they hadn’t laid eggs. Pa walked out to the barn then. I told him I was worried about some of the chickens. “If this keeps up, this is going to be a money…money losing proposition, Pa. I don’t mind saying I’m mighty worried.”
“I know. It’s written all over your face.”
I suddenly looked up at him. “There's more to it then that Pa...last night when I was waitin' for you to come home from that trial, all I could think about was that you could come home. Nothing else seemed important. I didn't care if these hens laid another egg or if the house burned down." I stopped.
"And here you are this morning worrying about a few cents profit and loss," Pa said.
"Pa...I...I've been trying to tell myself I have so much to be thankful for but..." I stopped. I couldn’t finish my thought. Pa just gave me one of those looks.
“I know I have,” he declared. Then he slapped me on the back and walked out.
I thought on that for a minute, then I raced out. “Pa, I have to tell you about my idea! You see…I was thinking about all these chickens. Now, if I just let them lay eggs for a year – that would give me a hundred eggs per chicken which would mean 2,000 chickens and…”
“Two…thousand…chickens?????” Pa boomed out. “Mark, what on EARTH would you do with that many?”
“Sell their eggs and we could have chicken every night and…”
“Son, think about the food and water…and shelter for them…Even a hundred chickens is a lot!
“But I’ll be making a profit with the eggs!” I declared.
“Over my dead body!” Pa answered. “No way no how! No, no, no!”
“Not even…even a hundred?” I asked as I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Fifty,” Pa answered.
“Just a hundred chickens, Pa!”
“Zero!” Pa turned and stated as he raised his eyebrows at me.
“Oh…” I looked back towards the barn. “Well…fifty’s good.” Then I folded my arms and cocked my head to one side. “Oh, and uh…since Lou is becoming one of my regular customers, she’ll be coming out here more often to collect the eggs…or I’ll drop them off in town. So uh…if you would like to start working outside more with your shirt off…well…”
Pa put his hands on his hips and started toward me. “Okay…okay…just giving you a little advice! You know…I’m just thinking of ways to keep my customers happy and wanting to come back!”
“I’m going, pa…I’m going!” But as I walked away, I broke out in helpless laughter once again as I pictured the priceless look on Miss Lou’s face when she realized she was staring and touching my Pa’s chest!
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch