I still remember that day. Pa and I were in Santa Fe buying a few head of cattle. When the deal was finished, Pa decided we’d stop by and see a friend of ours we visited with when we came through Santa Fe every now and then. But as we rode toward the ranch, Pa slowed almost to a stop. “What’s wrong?” I asked as I looked at him.
Pa sniffed the air and put a finger to his lips. I sat quietly and watched him. My Pa had a sixth sense about stuff. If something was amiss, he could tell it by the smell in the air and the sound – or lack there of. “Something’s wrong.”
“How-how do you know?” I asked quietly.
“I can smell death,” Pa answered. “Crawford!” he yelled loudly. There was no answer from below. “Hey Amos Crawford!” But there was still no answer. “Stay here, son. Stay right here.” I watched him ride down the hill toward the ranch. He turned his head back towards me. “No matter what, stay right there.”
I sat in the saddle. Blue Boy wanted to follow Razor – it wasn’t natural for Razor to go and not him, but I made him stay put. I waited for what seemed like ever. “Oh God, no!” I heard Pa cry. “Oh no!”
“Pa?” I called. “Pa?”
“Stay there, Mark!” Pa screamed. “Stay there!” There was an ache in his voice. I knew something was terribly wrong. Pa made his way slowly back up. He looked around in every direction as if he were looking for something. Finally, he relaxed and leaned his head against the saddle. His face was white and he looked as if he were about to get sick.
I’d never seen Pa so bothered. I swallowed hard. “Pa?” I reached out a hand and touched him. Pa suddenly reached up and grabbed me off the saddle. He sat on the ground and hugged me close to him as he silently rocked back and fourth. “Pa, you’re scaring me!” I cried. “What’s wrong?”
Pa finally let go of me, realizing he was hurting me. He stood up mounted his horse. “Let’s ride back to town, son. I’m locking you up in the hotel room then coming back with the Marshal.”
We began riding away. Pa continued looking over his shoulder. I could tell he was still very upset. “Pa? What is it?”
Pa swallowed hard. Then he looked at me. “Indians.”
I looked over my shoulder. “Indians killed Mr. Crawford?”
We were in town now. We had stopped in front of the hotel. Pa didn’t say another word but pushed me toward the hotel room. He closed the door and motioned for me to sit on the bed. He pulled up a chair and sat in front of me. He bent forward and put his hands on my shoulder. “Mark, I…I have to tell you something. You can react however you want, but I need you to try to understand. Okay?”
I swallowed, afraid of what Pa was going to tell me. “Mark, it wasn’t just Mr. Crawford who was murdered. His wife and three children were also killed.”
Shock swept through my body. I felt my skin grow cold as I allowed Pa’s words to penetrate my mind. “Dead?” I whispered. I closed my eyes as they filled up with tears. In a shaky voice, I declared, “Pa, the kids were little. They had only been married ten years!”
Pa nodded. “I know.” He laid a hand on my cheek. “The baby was only three.”
I lowered my head as I suddenly felt cold. “No!” I cried. “No!”
“I wish I could tell you they didn’t suffer, but they did.” Pa reached out and grabbed me but I pulled away. I understood what he was saying.
They had been scalped.
I walked to the window and looked down on the street. “The last time we were here they were playing right down there, Pa. We got in trouble for playing in the street remember?” My voice was shaky, but I was still in shock and didn’t want to believe this.
Pa walked up behind me and laid his hands on my shoulders. “I know.” There were tears in his voice. The touch of his hands melted my denial and I suddenly turned and grabbed hold of his middle. I buried my head in his chest and cried as he wrapped his arms around me tight.
Only after my tears were spent and Pa had spoken softly to me for quite awhile did he decide to leave. “I want you to stay here in the hotel, son. Santa Fe isn’t North Fork. I don’t trust these people here.”
“Where you going?” I asked quietly.
“To get the Marshal and take him out there. We need to find out who did this.”
We had left Santa Fe just two days later. Pa said that there was a band of Indians responsible for several killings in these parts. He’d heard Micah speak of them. They were led by a white man named Stanley. Pa said they had caught the Indians pretty easily, and they were already condemned to hang in Santa Fe, but Stanley was last seen heading toward North Fork.
As I left for school that first morning, Pa handed me a note to give Mr. Griswald. He had his horse saddled and told me he’d be riding in with me until Stanley was caught. I wasn’t ever to be alone. He wanted to keep a watchful eye on me. I reminded him I was 12 years old. “Yes,” Pa stated with a firm nod. “And I want to see you live to be 13, so do as I say, boy.” That was the end of the discussion.
After school, Mr. Griswald would escort me to Millie’s where I was to stay until Pa got there. I think the scalping had really shaken him up.
Mr. Griswald closed the doors to the school that afternoon. I didn’t much care to be caught climbing in the teacher’s buggy. I looked around nervously, hoping no one was watching. After we started down the lane, Mr. Griswald cleared his throat. “Mark, I know no school boy wants to be caught with the teacher like this, but your father loves you very much.”
“Yes sir,” I answered with a sigh. “He just protects me too much.”
“It’s because he loves you. You are all he has. I wish I had a boy like you to love.” I suddenly turned my head to look at him. There was a small grin on his face. I couldn’t help but smile back.
I hurried into the General Store. Pa was there talking softly to Millie. She had a worried expression on her face. Her arms were crossed and she quickly wiped a tear from her cheek. I sat my books down on the counter and walked towards them. “What is it?” I asked suddenly.
Pa looked at Millie once more before walking towards me. He took my arm and led me into the back of the store. We sat down at the table and he fiddled with his hands. “Mark, Micah arrested Stanley today.” I nodded my approval, happy it was over. “I’m going with him to deliver him to Santa Fe.” Pa said it so rapidly that it took me a minute to understand what he was saying.
When I did understand what he was saying, I stood up. “No!” I declared. I knew how dangerous this man was. “No!”
“Son, do you want Micah to do it alone? His life’s in danger.” Pa said sternly as he stood and pushed me back down in my chair.
“Why can’t we try him here?” I was desperate.
“You know he has to go back and be tried where he committed the crime, son.” Pa looked at me for a second, waiting for me to accept it. When I didn’t, he raised his eyebrows and looked at me sternly. “That’s the way it has to be, Mark.”
“I don’t want you to go Pa!” I declared sternly myself. “It’s too dangerous!”
Pa sighed. “Mark, Micah’s my best friend. He can’t do this alone.”
“I don’t want Micah to go either, Pa. But, you’re my father!” I looked up at Pa. “Please don’t go.”
Pa stood up with a sigh. “I’ll be leaving in an hour.” That was that.
Millie gave Pa and Micah everything they needed for the trip. When they were about to leave, I walked to the doorway and looked toward the horses. Stanley was sitting on them laughing hysterically at some unknown thing. I stared at him, wondering how a man could be so evil. Pa suddenly pushed me back into the General Store, not wanting me exposed to a mad man like Stanley.
He walked up to Millie then. She was behind the counter looking worried. He put his hand on her shoulders and brushed her hair back. “I’ll be back,” he promised her. Millie smiled nervously then turned and looked at me. I suddenly knew they wanted a moment to themselves so I walked to the back of the store.
I busied myself with straightening the canned goods. “Mark?” I finally heard Pa’s voice. “I have to go.”
I continued straightening the canned goods, trying to pretend like nothing was wrong. “How long will you be gone?”
“Oh, only about a week I hope,” Pa answered. “We’ll send a telegram when we get to Santa Fe telling you not to worry.”
“Alright,” I answered as I continued with my task.
Pa was quiet. I was beginning to think he had left. But I suddenly heard him sigh heavily. “Son, you know I can’t leave you like this.”
I suddenly turned. He held his arms out to me and I walked into them. “I’m afraid for you, Pa,” I stated into his chest. “That man is purely evil. If he’d scalp a three year old girl, he’d try anything to kill you.”
Pa pushed me away from him. He smiled into my eyes. “I can’t tell you not to worry.” He looked up at Millie. “Take care of my boy.” Millie grabbed Pa’s hand. The three of us stood there in that half circle until Micah cleared his throat at the door.
“We need to go.” I hurried to the door and watched Pa ride down the street. Millie came up behind me and put her hands on my shoulder. I watched Pa ride slowly away, not wanting to take my eyes off of him ever.
“It’s dangerous,” I whispered loudly.
Millie, still standing behind me, wrapped her arms around me and hugged me to her. “I know, Mark.” Then she let go of me. “Why don’t you finish your canned goods. I’ll go start supper.”
When Millie finished the dishes, she sat down at the table with me and helped me with my homework. She was so patient with me. She praised me when I got a problem right, but when I got one wrong she gently corrected me. I smiled up at her, happy that she was there for me like this.
When she sent me to bed, I couldn’t get to sleep. She came in to check on me later and found me still awake. She sat down on the floor next to my cot. “Worried about your father?” I nodded. She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She leaned her head against the counter and closed her eyes. “Have you ever had a best friend, Mark?” I nodded.
“Well, I can’t say that I completely understand the relationship your father and Micah have, but I know that they need each other. I don’t know if I should tell you this or not, but I’m going to anyway. When Lucas heard that that crazy man…Stanley…was caught, I was with him. His face grew angry and he had murder in his eye. Oh, I know he would have never done it. Micah dragged him to the back of the store here and they talked for a long time.”
I nodded. “Sometimes Micah’s the only one who can help Pa fight those demons. I can’t even do it at times.”
Millie smiled. “Well, that’s because you’re his son. Micah knows Lucas inside and out and I can’t help but to think it’s because they are best friends – they are so much alike and know what the other is thinking…sort of like you and your father, except on a different level…” Millie sighed as she closed her eyes. “I’m sorry, Mark. I’m afraid I’m not explaining this very well.”
I laid there in the darkness thinking on what she said. “Mark,” Millie suddenly reached out and grabbed my hand. I turned and looked at her. “Your father…he loves you more then anything else and if it came to choosing between you and Micah…he would have chosen you.”
“Is that what I was doing? Trying to make him choose?” Millie nodded slightly.
“It was hard for him to leave you knowing how you felt. He knew you were angry.”
“No, I wasn’t angry,” I answered. “I was just…” I stopped, suddenly realizing the truth. I hung my head. “I guess I was angry.”
“He knew Micah would need help. You know your father, Mark. He could never rest easy knowing Micah was out there with that mad man by himself crossing the hot, dry desert.” Millie gasped then, suddenly realizing she had told me something I wasn’t supposed to know.
I suddenly sat up. “Dead Man’s Crossing?” I stared at her. “They went through Dead Man’s Crossing?”
Millie put her head in her hands. I could tell she was regretting what she had just told me. “That just slipped out, Mark. I promised your Pa I wouldn’t tell you. I’m sorry.”
I remembered the last time we’d been out in that desert. It was forsaken – not a drop of water to be found. Our horses had been spooked by a rattlesnake when we were getting ready to leave. My Pa came close to dying. If anything happened now, Micah wouldn’t be able to make it back to save Pa. “Why’d he go that way?” I suddenly cried out. “Why?”
“That’s why your father insisted on going along, Mark. Micah was being stubborn, stating he was going to get Stanley to Santa Fe the fastest way he knew how – that was a shortcut through the desert. When your father found out, he told Micah he wasn’t going at it alone.”
I sighed as I leaned my head against the counter now. “Now I’m really worried.”
“Well, don’t be, Mark. Your father can take care of himself.” Millie pushed me back down onto the cot. She tucked the covers around me.
“Yes, but you don’t understand. He wasn’t able to take care of himself – or me – the last time he crossed that desert.” I shivered just thinking about that ordeal. “He sent me away because he thought he was going to die. He had to say goodbye to me.”
“He told me, and that’s why he didn’t want you to know, Mark. I’m sorry I told you.” She kissed my forehead. “I can’t tell you not to worry. I know you love your Pa and will worry. But I can tell you that it’s getting late and you have school tomorrow. You want me to sit with you until you go to sleep?”
I started to tell her I wasn’t a baby, but I suddenly felt the need to have a mother nearby. Millie wasn’t my mother, but she was the closest one I’ve had in a long time. I swallowed and nodded my head ever so slightly. She smiled and kissed me on the forehead again. She sat quietly in the darkness just holding my hand.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember Millie was shaking my shoulder to wake me up. I sat up suddenly and stretched. “I have bacon and eggs ready for you,” she said as she smiled down at me.
I hurried along to school after breakfast. Freddie ran up to me. Apparently he had heard my Pa had taken off with Micah to deliver that prisoner. I didn’t really want to talk about it and quickly brushed him off.
The week passed slowly. I went to school, came home and did my homework, then went out to play with my friends until Millie called me inside for bed. She even took me to the hotel to eat several nights. But four days after Pa and Micah left, my worry turned into a hard, heavy fear. They should have reached Santa Fe by now. When I walked into the store that afternoon and Millie shook her head, I hurried over to the telegraph office.
“Could you send a telegram to the Marshal in Santa Fe?” I asked desperately. “It’s an emergency.”
Joe, the telegrapher, looked up at me. “You worried about your father?” I nodded. “I don’t think a telegram will help, but son there’s lots of things that could have delayed them.”
“I’ll pay you when Pa gets back. I promise!” I pleaded.
Joe bent down to look into my eyes. “No you won’t,” he stated as he ruffled my hair. “Because I won’t let you pay. This one’s on me.” He smiled at me.
I waited while he sent the telegram. He turned and smiled at me. “It’s all done,” he stated. “It’ll be awhile before an answer comes.”
I nodded and wondered back out onto the street. I walked to the livery stable and saddled my horse. “I’m going to the ranch Nils. If Millie needs me, tell her I’ll be back later.”
I rode out to the ranch and looked around. There was a lonely feeling to it – almost eerie. I ran my hand up and down the post, hearing my Pa’s laughter ring out as he leaned against it and told me to go do the dishes. I walked to the well and cranked the handle on the side to raise the bucket. I can still feel Pa come up behind me and help me crank saying, “I need that water today, son.” I gasped. I really heard his voice. I turned around but saw no one there.
I suddenly took my hand off the crank and dropped to my knees. He wanted water. Was Pa wondering around the desert, thirsty like he had the last time we were there? Was he slowly dying?
Fear gripped my heart and my throat suddenly went dry. I could suddenly feel my Pa’s suffering. He’s out there, I thought. He’s out there without water. Somehow I knew he was. I really wasn’t sure what to do about it. I knew no one would believe me.
I went inside the ranch house and looked around. Pa’s coffee cup was still sitting on the kitchen counter where he had put it that last day he was here. “I’m getting pretty dry, son.” Again I looked around the house but Pa wasn’t there. I shivered again, even though it wasn’t cold.
The door opened and Toomey was there. “Mark, is everything okay?”
I shook my head. “Something’s wrong with Pa!” I gasped. “I can feel it. He needs water.”
Toomey sat down at the table. “Nils told me you were here. I think you need to sit down, son.”
I slowly walked over to the table and sat. He leaned into me so he could look straight into my eyes. “We just got word from the Santa Fe Marshal, Mark. Lucas and Micah were supposed to be there two days ago.”
I lowered my head and put my face in my hands as I fretted even more. “They are out there in the desert without water.” I stood up and ran to the door. I ran my hand across the empty rifle holder. “I know you won’t believe me, Toomey, but I heard Pa’s voice begging for water…twice.” I looked down at the place where his rifle should be. “It was as clear as day.”
Toomey stood up and walked over to me. He laid a hand on my shoulder and turned me around. “No, I do believe you, son.”
I stared into his eyes. “You do?”
He nodded. “Yes. When two people are as close and in love as you and your father are…well, you can sense things no matter how far apart you are. It’s an amazing thing that I’ll never understand.” Toomey bent down in front of me. “You remember when those Indians captured you?” I nodded. “Your Pa knew…in his heart…that you were alive. He never gave up on you. I did. I thought you were dead.”
I stared at Toomey. I had never known that. He nodded and lowered his head in shame. “When you came back, I made a promise to myself that I would never…ever…doubt a McCain again as long as I lived. I’ve never seen a stronger father-son bond in my life.” I suddenly threw my arms around him, needing to feel the comfort of a father.
He patted my back a few times then pushed me away. “Some of us are going to head out to Dead Man’s Crossing now, son.”
“I want to go with you,” I declared.
“No, absolutely not!” Toomey answered firmly.
“He’s my father!” I declared.
“And you are his son. There are many reasons you cannot go with us. You are still a boy, your father would not approve, and it’s very dangerous. Let’s go back into town and get you settled at Millie’s. We’re bringing plenty of water.”
I started out the door. Toomey grabbed my arm and turned me back around. “Mark?” I looked up into his eyes. “I won’t be back until we find him. I promise you that.”
I nodded knowing he was telling the truth. “Thanks,” I stated.
We rode back to town. There were five men mounting up getting ready to go. Millie and I stood on the boardwalk just outside the door of the General Store. She held a protective arm around me. “Why so many men?” I asked suddenly. “Do they think there’s trouble?”
Millie looked worried. I could tell from the grip she held around me that she was fearing the worst as well. “They don’t know, Mark. They just want to be ready for everything.”
“What if he got away from them? What if somehow-“ I started. But Millie gently covered my mouth with her hand.
The men led their horses across the street and stood in front of us. “We’ll find your father and Micah, Mark. We’ll bring him back safely to you. I promise.” I watched silently as they mounted their horses. Toomey turned and gave me the thumbs up sign. Then they turned the horses and galloped off.
I turned to Millie and she hugged me to her. “Let’s go to the hotel, Mark. We’ll have a nice dinner.”
“He’s without water, Millie. How can I go to the restaurant and eat knowing my father has no water? You think they’ll find him in time?”
Millie bent down and smile at me. She laid a hand on my cheek. “They’ll find him, Mark. You just have to believe.”
The next morning Millie asked me if I was going to go fishing. I shook my head as I scooted the flapjacks around on my plate. “My Pa’s out there without water, Millie.”
“He wouldn’t want you to sit here moping for him, Mark. The men will find him – and Micah – and bring them back.” Millie promised.
“I reckon I’ll clean the Marshal’s office this morning. It could use a good cleaning, don’t you think?” Millie smiled and nodded. She knew I needed to be busy and feel useful. “When Micah comes home, he’ll find a nice, clean office.” Millie helped me gather up the supplies I would need for my task. “Then I’ll go out to the ranch and work on cleaning it. I’m gonna give the house a good cleaning, then I’ll start on the barn.”
I worked all morning on Micah’s office. I swept and mopped the floors until they shone. Then I got every piece of dust out. I even gave the cells a good washing. I stood back and smiled. Millie came in while I was observing my handy work. She put a hand on my shoulder and nodded her approval. “Micah will be proud.”
She made me eat before letting me go to the ranch. When I got to the ranch I began sweeping out the house. It was amazing how much dust could gather in just the few days since I cleaned it last! When the house was clean as a new penny, I started on the barn. I laid down fresh hay, gave our wagon horses a good brushing and sent them out to pastor for awhile. I cleaned everything.
But suddenly, I heard a horse. I hurried out of the barn to see Freddie quickly racing up to me. “Mark, Mark!” he cried. “They’re back! They’re at the docs!”
I threw down the pitchfork and jumped on Blue Boy. “Are they okay?” I asked as my heart started beating a mile a minute.
Freddie nodded. “The prisoner’s dead – dried out from no water. But your Pa and Micah will be okay. Doc’s keeping an eye on ‘em for awhile.”
We raced into town. Pa had just walked out of the doc’s office. I jumped off my horse and just stood there staring at the big man in front of me. I smiled a big smile. “Pa!” I cried.
Pa stood and stared at me. He started walking forward with outstretched arms. “Mark, Oh Mark!” He suddenly gasped. He hurried forward and lifted me off the ground, swinging me around as he laid gentle kisses on my cheeks. I just stayed there in his arms as he held me tight. He leaned his head back and studied my face. His cheeks were wet with tears and he rubbed the back of his fingers against my own wet cheek. “There was a while that I didn’t think I was going to ever hold my boy again!”
“I heard you, Pa. You said you needed water,” I announced proudly. “I was so worried, but when I went out to the ranch I felt so close to you suddenly and I heard you. You said you needed water.”
Pa hugged me again. “Thank you God for such a wonderful son!”
“Lucas!” I slid down from Pa and turned. He stood behind me and slid his arms around my neck, locking his hands together across my chest as I leaned against him. Millie smiled. “Lucas, it’s good to see you.”
Pa looked down at me and grinned. He released his hold on me and turned me around. “Go say hi to Micah, son,” Pa said in a broken voice. I started into doc’s office, but suddenly turned. Pa was slowly walking towards Millie. Millie smiled tearfully.
I don’t know how he knew, but Pa suddenly stopped and turned his head. “Get going, boy.”
I laughed. “Gee, kids always miss out on the good stuff!” I declared as I went in to say hi to Micah.
When I walked inside, Doc was wrapping up Micah’s middle. Micah was groaning from the pain. I hurried up to him and grabbed his hand. “What happened?” I asked. “Did that mad man do this to you?”
“No boy.” Micah answered as he closed his eyes to suppress another groan. “Mark, what happened out in that desert was a pretty scary experience. Your father and I agreed not to talk about it ever again. Can we leave it at that?”
“But Micah, your ribs-“ I started.
“The ribs will heal, boy. Your father and I survived an ordeal out there. We almost died.”
Pa came inside then. Millie stood beside him. “We should go get supper at the hotel soon, son.”
I turned. “No!” I declared. Everyone froze and stared at me. I grabbed Pa by the arm. “Can I take my Pa home now, Doc? I want to get him settled in bed.”
“Mark-“ Pa started.
But I didn’t want to hear his arguments. I turned and pushed Pa toward the door. “I’m sure Nils has a team and wagon we can borrow for the night. I’ll bring it back tomorrow on my way into church.” Pa started to speak again. “And I don’t want any arguments from you, Pa!” I declared as I wagged a finger at him. “You have been through a hard ordeal – being in the desert without water for so long – and you need your rest and recovery.” I turned to Doc. “Doesn’t he, Doc?”
“Oh,” Doc suddenly popped his head up “Yes, that’s right Mark.”
“Now Doc, look-“ Pa started again.
“Now, you sit right here!” I pushed Pa into a chair just inside the door. “I’m going to go talk to Nils. Then you are going home and going to bed.” I turned to Millie. “You got some of that good soup stock I can take with me? I think he’ll need some for supper.”
Millie put a hand to her mouth and smiled. “Yes, Mark. I-I’ll get it for you.”
After we were settled in the wagon on the way home, Pa asked me how I knew he had no access to water. “You told me,” I answered.
Pa turned and stared at me. “What do you mean I told you?”
I slapped harder on the reins and merely grinned. “Nothing, Pa. Absolutely nothing!”
*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
Flowers by the Door
around The McCain Ranch