We were in the middle of our last math lesson for two whole weeks. For the next two weeks, the class would be on break from school. I was excited as I thought about having two whole weeks with no homework. I was going to get to work the ranch with my Pa! But I was also hoping to get in some fishing and play with my friends a lot more – kinda like we do every break!
I stared out the window. Freddie sat beside me and suddenly nudged me. I turned and looked at him. “Wanta go fishing after school today?”
I shook my head. “I do want to, but I already promised Pa I’d come straight home. He wants me to check the cattle with him. But tomorrow’s Saturday, and I have it in my mind to-“
“Mark McCain?” I suddenly heard Miss Adams call.
I turned and sat straight up in my seat. She cleared her throat and pointed to the math problem on the board. “Would you walk us through how to work this problem?”
I stood up and stared at the problem. Then I swallowed. “No ma’am. I don’t know.”
“Okay, Mr. McCain. You may be seated.” Then she called on someone else.
“Now,” she cleared her throat and picked up a pile of small cards from her desk. “I’m going to dismiss you early today.” We all began cheering. That was the best news all day! “But, before you leave, I am going to hand out your report cards.”
I slumped down in my chair. Freddie turned and looked at me. “Oh boy,” I mumbled. “Ohhhhhhhhhh boy!”
But Miss Adams wasn’t done talking. “After I call your name and you get your report cards, you can leave.” There was a lot of noise as the kids started gathering up their books. Miss Adams held up a hand to quiet them. “Make sure you return them with signatures when you return.”
She began calling names. I watched the faces as the kids looked at them. Most of them kept smiles on their faces. I saw a few faces indifferent. Then I saw Freddie stick his in his back pocket. I grabbed Freddie by the arm as we walked past me. “Aren’t you gonna look?” I asked.
“No way! Cause if there’s a bad grade on there, I’d get it for going fishing! No sense in wasting a good afternoon!” I shook my head at his reasoning. I knew a trick like that wouldn’t work on my Pa!
Most of the kids had already left by the time Miss Adams called my name. She handed the card to me with a concerned look on her face. Then she handed me a note in a sealed envelope. It had my father’s name on the front of it. I was afraid to look. She smiled at me. “Have a good break, Mark.”
I walked slowly out of the schoolhouse and down the steps. I was afraid to look, and I was trying to figure out what the envelope contained! I walked a ways from the school. I knew it would be bad. I hadn’t understood math the last few weeks – ever since we started fractions. I hadn’t finished my homework several nights. Pa used to be really good at checking my homework, but he’d been so busy with the ranch and stuff lately that he got out of the habit of asking.
When I got to the rock wall just outside our ranch, I stopped and slid down against the wall. Then I slowly pulled my report card out of my pocket and looked. Here’s what I saw:
English Grammar C-
Current Events B
Bible Study A
I swallowed hard. I knew my math grade was going to be bad, but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite this bad! I looked down toward the ranch. Then I stared at the envelope in my hand.
I slowly stood up and walked over to Blue Boy. Mounting him, I gently kicked his sides. “Well, might as well get it over with. Come on.”
I tied Blue Boy to the hitching Post outside the house. Pa was inside working on the books. “Ain’t we gonna go ride the range?” I asked.
“I was waiting for you, son.” Pa closed his ledger. I stood in front of his desk with the report card and envelope in my hand. Pa looked up at me. “Well, you look like a cat who just ate the canary,” he commented.
“Um…y-yes sir,” that was all I could get out. I was a bit nervous to give him the bad news.
Pa stood and walked in front of his desk. He leaned against it and folded his arms. “Well?”
I swallowed hard. “We-we got our report cards today, Pa.”
“Oh,” Pa took the report card and looked at it. He scratched his chin as he looked over it. “Well,” he finally said after what seemed to be an eternity. “You did pretty good in most of these subjects. I’m a little concerned about your English Grammar grade.” He looked up at me to show me that he really was concerned.
“Yes sir,” I answered.
Pa went to sit down at the head of the table. He motioned for me to take a seat on the side right beside him. I knew it was bad when he did that. “Before we talk about your mathematics, I would like to read that there note,” he motioned to the envelope still in my hand.
I handed him the envelope and he opened it. It was several pages long. I sat quietly, staring at the table…the lamp…out the window…everywhere but at Pa. I could feel my heart beating. I heard a few sighs come from my Pa as he read and flipped pages. Then he folded the letter back up and put it back into the envelope and folded his hands. “Well,” he said. Then he drummed his fingers together. “Well.”
I braced myself, waiting for his words. But then he slowly stood up and walked toward the door. “Well, let’s go ride the range.”
I turned and stared at him. Pa grabbed my hat and handed it to me. “Well, come on, boy!”
I wasn’t quite sure what to make out of this. I could tell by Pa’s actions that the contents of the envelope were not good, so I was trying to figure out what was going on. I slowly stood and grabbed my hat from him. Then I mounted my horse and rode beside Pa out onto the range.
After riding in silence for awhile, Pa slowed his horse down so we were barely moving. I tried to keep the slow pace with Pa. “Have you ever noticed how big the range is? When we lived in Oklahoma, I dreamed for a place like this.” I looked over the range. The cattle were grazing lazily in the grass. I saw a calf eating from his mother. I looked as far as the eye could see.
“You deserve it, Pa!” I declared.
“Why?” he suddenly asked.
That confused me. “What do you mean why? You worked hard for what you got, what with the deputy job you did in Claypool, and working on cattle drives after Ma died…You’ve earned it all yourself.”
Pa smiled at me. We were sitting perfectly still now. “You’re right, Mark. I did work hard. You see son, a man’s got a lot of responsibilities. I have to keep the fence mended, check the cattle everyday, feed our livestock, check them for diseases or sickness. Sometimes I have to help a baby calf along in this world. Then I have the work at the ranch – tending to the barn chores, chopping the wood…laundry, mopping, dishes, cooking…
I turned and looked at Pa with a prideful smile. “You do work hard, Pa. I know you have a big responsibility.”
Suddenly, Pa took off across the range again. We got to a cow that had strayed off the range, and together Pa and I worked at chasing her back onto the range with the rest of the cattle. We watched her go. Pa folded his arms and looked down at me. “You know what my biggest responsibility is though?”
I looked at him, waiting for his answer. “You. Pa wrapped a hand around the back of my neck as we started walking. “I have to make sure you grow up to be a fine man who can be responsible. I have to make sure you get a good sleep every night, are safe from danger, eat enough so you’ll grow strong. I have to sit up with you all night when you have the flu…or the measles. I have to hold you at night when you have a nightmare. And I have to make sure you get a good education.”
Pa turned to stand in front of me. There was gentleness in his eyes, but his lips were drawn in a firm, thin line. He raised his eyebrows and folded his arms. Then he spoke softly and deliberately. “Now, let’s suppose, son, that one day I decided I didn’t want to ride out and check for breaks in the fence anymore. I would rather go into town and have a beer with Micah everyday instead. What would happen?”
I lowered my head, knowing this was the talk about my grades. “The cattle would scatter all around the range,” I answered softly.
“And what would happen if I decided I wasn’t going to chop wood anymore. Instead, I was going to sit beneath a tree and watch the world pass by,” Pa asked as he lifted my chin to look into his eyes.
“We’d freeze to death in the winter.” Boy, if he was trying to make me feel guilty, it sure was working!
Pa started walking back to the horses. He continued talking as we mounted back up and started riding the range again. “You see son, we all have our responsibilities. I’ve mentioned mine. Now let’s talk about yours.”
I sighed. “I know what you’re getting at, Pa.” I looked at him. I could tell he was waiting for me to answer. “Go to school.”
“And?” Pa aske
“Do my homework
I sighed. “Do my best.”
“Have you been doing your best?” He asked. I shook my head. “Do…you want to know what the letter said?”
I sighed and stopped riding. Pa turned slightly towards me. “Keep riding, son.” Pa sighed as he watched me squirm in my saddle. “You haven’t been doing your math homework the last few weeks. You haven’t been studying for your tests. And you haven’t been paying attention in class.”
Another silence fell over us. We rode the range for a long time checking the cattle. But then Pa stopped on the top of a hill. He got off Razor and helped me down. Then he sat down on the grass. He pointed up at the sky. The sun was just beginning to set and we sat together, just watching the colors the setting brought. “Son, what if God suddenly decided not to set the sun today – what if he just decided to leave it alone and let it shine just the way it is all night?”
I sighed. “I…I’m sorry, Pa. It’s just that-“ I stopped, knowing how much Pa hated lousy explanations.
“Just what, son?” Pa asked as he gently laid a arm around my shoulders. “What’s wrong?”
“Pa, I don’t understand fractions!” I suddenly declared.
“Well, you will.” Pa stood and we climbed back onto the horses and started for home. “We are going to spend lots of times on your math homework this next two weeks. Your teacher gave you several assignments to help. And I’m going to get another math book for you as well. We’ll work on it together.”
When we got back to the ranch, I began unsaddling Blue Boy while Pa unsaddled his horse. “Son, why didn’t you come to me?
I shrugged. “I know I should have, Pa. I just…didn’t want you to be ashamed of me. I’m not smart like you…”
Pa laughed. “I’m certainly not smart! But math has always come natural for me. I guess I’ve been rather busy and haven’t been paying attention to your studies, son.”
“I’m sorry, Pa.”
“I guess you know there will be no fishing until there’s an improvement in your grades.” It was a statement. Not a question.
“Yes sir,” I answered.
That’s how I came to be sitting on the porch that day that Micah rode in to talk to Pa about standing in for him while he delivered a prisoner somewhere else. We had been working on the fractions for two days. It was now Monday morning, and we sat on the porch. These fractions were…as clear as mud and very impractical in my opinion.
I must admit that on Saturday and Sunday, Pa had to be quite firm with me about concentrating on my studying. But this morning, I still showed frustration, but after being threatened bodily harm, I had resigned to having to learn fractions rather I liked it or not!
That morning, Pa told me that he had hired a hand in town to do some of the chores. So right after breakfast, he picked up my math book and sat me on the bench on the porch where he said we would stay until the problems started making sense. But as soon as he started talking about converting fractions, I complained about how impractical this stuff was. Pa had a short temper the last few days, and I knew I was causing him a lot of frustration with my constant complaining about it.
“You’ll see these fractions will come in handy too,” Pa stated.
I doubted that! “Well, what’s handy about finding out ½ a cow times 1/8 a pig times 1/3 a horse?”
I probably wasn’t helping myself much, but I was trying to make a point. Guess what? My Pa didn’t care about my “point.” My pointing out the obvious only frustrated him more. “Well you-“ Pa started. Then suddenly he snapped at me. “Look, all I can say is that they wouldn’t be teaching it to you in school-“
That’s when Micah rode up. I sure was glad he did!
I must say that I sure was impressed when Micah asked Pa to swear in as deputy! It wasn’t often that he did it, and I must admit that telling people my Pa was the lawman was quite exciting! Micah said it would be no big deal – he was just to guard the office until he got back…but you know my Pa – trouble seemed to find him somehow, and I knew it would be all but boring!
Then I found out something else! Micah had Brett Stocker in his jail right now! I sure wish I could meet that outlaw – we’ve talked about him at school enough! He was famous for carrying a set of fancy firearms that he would never want to part with!
I listened to the words as Micah swore in my pa. “Do you solemnly swear to uphold the letter of the law to the best of your ability?”
Then I asked Micah what “Letter of the Law” meant. You know me – always curious about something!
“Letter of the law?” Micah suddenly asked. I guess no one had asked him about it before. “Well, it’s not something I rightly think much about, Mark. If you’re a Marshal, you just naturally do it. Like Brett Stocker – I get a poster saying he’s wanted for murder. Now, he didn’t commit any killing around here but upholding the law is as much my business as if it happened in my own backyard. It’s…uh…well, it’s upholding the law because it is the law. No matter what. Why, if my own brother was on that poster, it says I have to take him in.”
I didn’t ask anymore questions after that. I kinda wish I had though, because Pa announced we would go into town this afternoon after we worked on the fractions longer. As soon as Micah started leaving, Pa opened that book. I wanted to put it off for as long as possible. I asked Pa if I could come into town and stay with him while he was marshalling. I knew I’d have to stay at the hotel in town at night, but I also suspected Pa would try to send me out here to work on chores. Finally, Pa said, “Alright, on one condition.” I groaned when he told me what the condition was – I had to study the fractions!
As Pa started back in on me, my mind drifted off to happier times. But Pa nudged me and demanded that I pay attention. Then he got really smart! He made me work on the problem while he watched. I didn’t rightly understand the converting thing, and as I started working out the problem, Pa immediately stopped me and told me I was doing it wrong. I erased me error and tried again, but I was still doing it wrong.
The problem was simple, Pa said. ¼ + 1/8. He said I had to make the bottom numbers equal. Who wants to waste a day out of school to do something like this? Pa walked me through the problem. Then he told me to do the next problem myself.
The problem was 1/3 + 2/6 =. I told Pa that it was 3/9. Pa looked at me with that impatient, irritated look. I suppose he had been patient with me, but I just wasn’t getting it. “The two bottom numbers have to be the same, Mark!” Pa suddenly snapped at me.
I stood up and gave him the stuff. “Pa, I’m tired! We’ve been at it for two hours! I just don’t understand it!”
Pa suddenly sighed and pulled me toward him. “Look at me, son.” I did. I saw a more peaceful look in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mark. I’ll try to be kinder to you. I know it’s hard for you.” I nodded slightly. “Sit down here and I’ll try explaining it in a different way.
Pa got a piece of paper and started drawing pies and such on a piece of paper and showing me the numbers again. That made more since, but I still didn’t understand where I would ever use this in life!
That finally came to and end. We went inside to have lunch, and Pa kept on with the fractions. He cut my sandwich into four small pieces and took a piece away. “How much are you missing, son?” I told him I was missing ¼. “And how much am I missing?” I told him he was missing 1/2. “Then how much is missing all together?”
I thought for a minute. “3/4!” I declared.
“Oh!” Pa exclaimed as he handed me back my ¼ of a piece and sat down to eat. I guess I had gotten it wrong.
I sure was happy that we talked about other things on the trip into town! But when we got there, Micah hadn’t returned from our ranch yet. That worried Pa a bit since Micah had left way before we did.
Of course the minute I walked into Micah’s office, I saw the fancy guns sitting on his desk. I just couldn’t help myself. I immediately reached out and touched them. But then I pulled my hand away, knowing Pa wouldn’t approve.
He must have really been loosing his touch, because he allowed me to wait in the office while he went asking around for Micah. I could look at the guns without Pa’s nagging for me to put them down and leave them alone. I sat on the desk and pulled one of the guns out, examining it.
Suddenly, Stocker said, “You’re starting out right, kid! You wanta learn about guns, you gotta start our early.”
I wish I could! I had asked my Pa enough about learning to shoot a gun. But these were really fancy. “You must be pretty good to be using a double action,” I complimented him.
“Killing’s a trade, Sonny. It’s the kind of trade you can’t afford to come off second best in!” I decided to put them down. I didn’t like hearing him talking about killing people. “What did you think I used them for? Target practice?” He laughed at me.
He started talking about shooting off 200 bullets a day! I sure was impressed – he had gotten his bullets from an army supply place by sneaking in there at night. What an exciting life he must have lived! He’s shot every kind of gun imaginable! My life sounded pretty boring compared to his, I guess. Guns were, of course, something that fascinated me. Suddenly, he was suggesting I strap his guns on to see what they were like.
I wasn’t sure about that. Pa would skin me alive if he even knew I was touching these guns, much less talking to him. But the way Mr. Stocker talked…he made it sound exciting! I stood and looked toward the door. Pa wasn’t back yet, so I stood and started strapping them on. I suppose I had a little ways to go before they started fitting me.
But then it happened. As I was strapping them on, Pa walked in the door. He suddenly demanded me in that angry voice of his to put the guns down. I tried to make some lame excuse, but Pa didn’t want to hear any excuses. I looked at him and saw the anger on his face. Pa sternly reminded me that Mr. Stocker was in jail because of those guns. I knew I’d hear more on that later!
But as we stood there, a rock was thrown through the open door. Pa picked it up. Micah had been kidnapped. Pa had to let Stocker go today or Micah would be killed. I didn’t want Micah to die. “You gonna do it?” I asked. Pa wasn’t sure – he had a choice and I could tell he didn’t want to make it.
Pa turned to me. “Mark, I want you to go get John Hamilton. Then I want you to go over to Hattie’s store and wait for me.” He threw me a nickel. “Here, buy yourself some candy.”
“But Pa,” I started.
“Mark!” Pa yelled. “I don’t have time to argue – now go!”
I turned and walked out the door. After getting Mr. Hamilton, I stood out on the street. But Pa came to the door and stared at me. “This is no place for you, boy! Now get going!”
I walked over to the General Store and looked at the candy. “Mark, what’s going on out there?” Hattie asked.
“Micah’s been kidnapped by Mr. Stocker’s gang,” I answered quietly as I plopped my elbows on the counter and stared into the candy jars.
“Oh my! Why, that’s terrible!” Hattie exclaimed.
“Yeah, they have until sundown to let Stocker go…” I didn’t want to think about what happened if they didn’t.
There was no one in the store. I walked to the door and stared out the window. I was worried for Micah, and I know Pa was too. That’s why he yelled at me like he did. But still, it really hurt to hear him yell like that. Hattie came up behind me and placed her hands on my shoulders. “Micah will be fine, Mark. You’ll see. Your Pa will think of something.”
“He wouldn’t let me stay. He told me I had to stay here – I couldn’t even stand out on the street to see what’s going on.”
Hattie pulled me away from the door. “Listen Mark, I just baked some fresh bread in the back. Why don’t you go back there and get you some bread. I have some butter you can spread on there too.”
“Yes ma’am,” I answered. I knew she was trying to put as much distance between me and the Marshal’s office as she could. I sat at the table and ate the bread.
“Mark?” Pa suddenly called softly.
I turned and saw Pa standing in the doorway. He came to sit at the small table where I had been sitting looking at a magazine. “What did you do?” I asked.
Pa sighed. “I let him go.”
“Oh,” I looked down at the table. I took another bite of the bread.
“You have a piece for me?” I nodded and handed him a piece. “Listen Mark, I’m…That is, I didn’t mean to yell like I did while ago.”
“I know.” I wasn’t going to make him apologize. “Pa, will they let Micah go?”
Pa just looked at me and shrugged. “You have room for supper?”
“Yes sir!” I answered.
Pa was quiet. I could tell he was worried. He ate his food, then stood and told me to sit there and eat my dessert. I watched Pa slowly walk outside. When I finished eating, I walked out and found him sitting in a chair deep in thought.
“You had to let him go, Pa!” I tried to reassure him. He was really being hard on himself. It hurt me to see my Pa in such a state! I told him he did the right thing. I knew everyone in town thought he had done the right thing. But Pa was trying to justify his decision with himself. I knew I couldn’t help him. I struggled for a way to help him as I worried about Micah.
Then Pa told me to go to bed. I didn’t want to go to bed. I was worried for Micah – worried for Pa. I’m not sure who I was more worried about. I knew that if they killed Micah anyhow Pa would have a vengeance inside him that I couldn’t help, and a regret for allowing Stocker to go free in the first place. And I knew that if Micah returned, Micah would be angry with him for letting Stocker go.
Then Pa turned and sternly told me to go to bed.
I obeyed him, hearing the sternness in his voice. But I couldn’t sleep. I just laid around and thought about Pa. I thought about Micah. I worried about them both!
At some point, I did fall asleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and found the other side of the bed still empty. I got up and walked to the window. The street was quiet and dark. It was almost eerie. I wondered if Micah ever returned. I wondered where Pa was. I was worried as I stared out the window.
I just sat at the window watching. Suddenly, I saw two horses riding on the street. Who in the world would be coming at this time of night? I watched as they got off their horses and tied them outside the Marshal’s office. I stared at what I saw.
It was Stocker and another man!
I put my pants on then hurried out the door, hoping Pa was in the lobby. I ran down the stairs, but no one was there. It was dark. I opened the front door and stared across the street. Suddenly I heard gunshots. I can’t tell you how many. I froze on the porch of the hotel.
The shots rang out all up and down the street, echoing in the quietness of the night. It was so dark that you could see the blasts of the rifle. “Pa!” I cried suddenly.
Everything was too quiet. I couldn’t leave the hotel porch. I was scared – who was dead? Suddenly, I saw Pa step out onto the porch of the Marshal’s office. “Pa!” I shouted.
Pa smiled at me and held out his arms, giving me permission to run to him. I jumped in his arms and hugged him. “Did you get them?” Pa nodded. “Micah?” I cried as I looked passed him, into the office.
Pa smiled at me as he looked into my eyes. “Micah’s going to be okay, son. He’s staying at the doc’s tonight. Then they’ll move him to the hotel tomorrow.”
I hugged Pa again. “So it’s all over?” I asked.
“It’s all over,” he declared as we hugged.
Oh, you want to know what happened after that? Pa made me work for two hours every single day on my math. By the end of the week, I was finally being able to grasp it.
Three weeks later, we had our fast adding fractions test. After school, I jumped on Blue Boy and raced home. “Pa! Pa!” I waved the paper over my head.
Pa came out of the barn where he was working and grabbed ahold of Blue Boy’s reins when I got to him. “What is it Mark?”
“I did it, Pa! I did it!” I waved the paper in front of him excitedly.
Pa laughed as he grabbed my wrist to hold it still. “Well, if you stop fluttering it around, maybe I can see.” He grabbed that test from my hand and looked at it. I watched his face. A great big smile spread from one side to the other. “An A-? Mark, I’m so proud of you!”
“I did it, Pa! I did it!” I laughed. Then he lifted me into his arms and hugged me.
“You sure did!” Pa hugged me tightly. “I never doubted you could!”
“Pa, we’re about to start on multiplying fractions,” I suddenly announced with a disgusted look on my face.
“Oh, well maybe we’ll work some on that Sunday afternoon. I think my boy and I should go fishing tomorrow.”
“Oh boy!” I cried as Pa allowed me to climb on his back behind him as we made our way to the house.
*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