“Oh yeah, she is the ugliest old maid of them all!” Susan said as I walked out of the school one afternoon.
“I don’t know, have you seen Old Miss Black? Her name fits her! She sure is ugly, and I never met a witch before, but if you come even close to her yard, she comes out a screaming at ya' to get out of there!” Jeff said.
I walked up to Jeff then. “Well, if I remember right, she’s the one you hit in the head with a rock from that slingshot of yours!” I stated.
Jeff turned to me and said, “How’s this any of your business McCain?” He poked a finger in my chest. “Have you ever talked to that old maid?”
“Well, I-“ I had talked to her once. She was in town at the General Store, and I had lost my penny for my candy. She paid for it, stating she didn’t have much use for money anyhow. “I think she’s just lonely and don’t want any rocks shot at her.”
“Well, I think she is a witch,” Susan said as she stuck her nose up in the air. “She even has a black cat!”
I rolled my eyes at her. “That’s just silly! You are just trying to be mean to a poor old lady.”
We were all walking toward town. I was meeting Pa there. “No, I’m not being silly,” Susan huffed. “And not only does she have a black cat, but…” She suddenly spun around, causing me to come to an abrupt halt. My face was right in hers. She gave me a disgusted look as she took a couple steps back. “And, you know the story of Hansel and Gretel?”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh Pa-leeze! Don’t tell me that she bakes kids in her oven!”
“Well, maybe not, but she treats kids just as mean! They say there are certain times of the year when she’s outside cooking…something…in a big pot and saying strange words over it.“ Susan looked around suddenly as if she was expecting someone to be listening to her important secret. “I believe she’s casting spells on unsuspecting children.”
I looked around at some of the other kids. “Oh!” I sighed heavily. “That’s just ridiculous! She’s nice to me!”
Susan shrugged. “Okay, suit yourself! But don’t say that I didn’t warn ya!”
Suddenly, Susan and another girl named Cam stopped and Cam pointed across the street. “You see her?”
“Yeah,” Jeff chuckled. “From what I hear she’s getting close to an old maid now!”
“She’s young!” I stated. “Why, Pa says she’s only 26.”
“Mm hm.” Cam stated. “Old Maid,” she shook her head sadly. “Too bad, she’s actually pretty. But from what I hear, she has no manners.”
“Pa says her fiancé died in a stampede last year,” I stated.
Susan shook her head and folded her arms. “Don’t believe it! The way I hear it, no man would be seen with her.”
“I gotta go,” I said suddenly.
I started to walk away. Suddenly from behind me, Jeff cackled. “What’s wrong, Mark? You don’t like us?”
I suddenly rushed up to Jeff and got up in his face. “I don’t like you talking that way about these nice ladies. I think you are all being very rude!”
“Oh,” Susan crossed her arms and straightened her shoulders. “And you are Mr. Perfect, I suppose. You never do anything wrong?”
“I do lots of things wrong, you snippy, nosy, little-“
“Mark!” I suddenly heard from behind me. There’s nothing like proving my point. “Mark.” Pa grabbed my arm. “Come with me, boy.”
He didn’t even give me a chance to explain. When I tried, he told me there was never an excuse for calling people names. Then he said that if we were at home, he’d give me a mouth full of soap. I knew he would to – he’d done it before!
Pa had told me when we sat down to eat that perhaps I should just stay quiet for awhile. So as he and Micah talked, I sat quietly and listened. We were sitting in the restaurant and I was spreading butter on my bread when Micah said, “Yeah, she’s getting a mail-order groom all the way from Ohio.”
That perked up my ears. “A what?” I asked.
“Nevermind, Mark,” Pa said.
“But, I just wondered-“ I stopped when Pa looked at me. But later when we were on our way home, I asked, “Pa, what’s a mail order groom?”
“Well,” Pa started as he rubbed the back of his neck. “There are services that let a person advertise looking for a husband or wife. Then they write letters back and forth to get to know each other. After a time, if they decide they are compatible, they meet and get married.”
“Oh,” I said. Then I laughed. “That’s really silly.”
Pa sighed. “Mark, I think we’ve heard just about enough out of you for now.”
I found out later that it was Isabel Dent who was sending for a groom, and his name was John Jupiter. Pa told me that he’d be arriving in North Fork the next Saturday, so when we were in town that morning and she came up to talk to my Pa, I only asked an innocent question. “Oh good morning, Miss Isabel! Is this the day Mr. Jupiter’s coming in?”
“Mark,” Pa warned me. I never did figure out what I had said wrong exactly. But that seemed to be the first of several moments that day for me.
I know my Pa told you all about this man, but I just want to say that when this man first stepped out on the stage, my mouth just about popped open. He was a big man! But then when he lifted the trunk off that stage like it was…well…like it was a basket full of feathers, I became even more surprised. As I stood there looking at that trunk I couldn’t help but to wonder how any man could be so strong as to pick a trunk like that up! And if all this didn’t shock me enough, the answer to my question of how heavy the trunk was shocked me even more. “Why Mark, that’s as light as a butterfly’s heart. There’s nothin’ in there but my winter duds, forty or fifty books, and my tools.”
I was just getting over that shock when he told my Pa that a couple beef steaks would “wet” his appetite. As we sat down in the restaurant, I turned to Pa and pointed behind me. “Pa, did you see him?”
Pa smiled. “Yes, I believe I did, son.”
“Well, I mean, did you SEE him?” I suddenly held my hands together to form a big circle. “Why Pa, he’s a big man! And the way he can just lift that trunk!” My voice was becoming excited and I was getting louder.
“Alright Mark, that’s enough!” Pa said. “God made us all in different shapes and sizes.”
“Well yeah, but-“ I stopped when I saw Pa’s raised eyebrows. I stayed quiet through most of the meal, but then he started asking about Miss Isabel. I really liked her and all, and I got to thinking about all the talk I’m always hearing about the old maids at school. I don’t know that I meant to say it out loud…exactly. "Well, she's the only old maid in town that the kids don't make fun of."
I was sorry I said it the moment it left my mouth. It was what I wanted to say, but it didn’t come out the way I wanted to say it. If only they knew some of the things the kids said about the old maids at school, they’d know she was being paid a high compliment to be left out of the conversations. Pa gave me another one of those stern looks and told me that was enough, and I did my best to make what I said sound better. "Well, I didn't mean any harm by it, Pa. I like her,” I said.
“Well then you be a little more careful on how you talk about her,” Pa suggested.
“Well heck Mr. Jupiter, your lucky to get someone....." I started. I stopped, knowing what I was about to say would certainly not be accepted by my Pa. Again, Pa looked at me sternly. “Well, what I mean is-“ I was desperate, trying to get myself out of this predicament. But all I was doing was stuffing that foot further into my mouth.
“Let’s face it, son. This just is not your day,” Pa stated. Yeah, I think he was right!
Later, when we were outside Miss Isabel’s house, you know after Mr. Jupiter was hassled by those men and got all stunk up by the whisky and all? Well, then we took him home. Miss Isabel asked us if we wanted to stay for supper – they were having chicken and dumplings. Now, if there’s one thing I like, it was chicken and…well…anything! So naturally I was all excited! “Chicken and dumplings-“ I started. But Pa suddenly interrupted me and said we had already eaten. “But Pa-“ I started when he gave me another one of those stop talking right now looks.
“Pa, we didn't eat supper. I sure wish you would have taken her up on that invite!” I complained as we started to leave.
“Mark, you know better that. Isabel doesn’t want company the first night she and her intended have supper together!” Pa scolded me.
I suppose he was right, though I didn’t really know – or care- much about romance and stuff!
“But that sure is a funny way to order a husband – by mail!” I’m sorry, I tried to hold it in but I just couldn’t help myself!
Pa wasn’t too please with me either, I could tell. “Look son, she didn’t order a husband by mail! They just wrote letters back-“
Pa stopped. You know why? Because that’s exactly how it sounded – she was ordering something through mail! He couldn’t argue with me. But I recon he could try to put a tighter rein on my tongue. “Look Mark, uh…there’s a lot of people in this world who are lonely; who want very badly to love and be loved. I don’t think we should call it funny. No matter how they go about tryin’, well, tryin’ not to be lonely anymore. You understand me?” I nodded because I didn’t want to hear anymore, but I didn’t understand!
We got home and I could smell the ham! Pa had put it on early this morning and the smell of it was filling up the entire house. After we said the blessing, I took a long drink of my milk, sat back and sighed. “Pa, are you ever lonely?
“Well, we all get lonely, son,” Pa answered as he put a piece of ham on my plate and handed it to me.
I put a piece in my mouth. “I mean, are you lonely?” I asked again.
Pa shook his head. “If you’re asking if I get lonely for female companionship, the answer is yes. And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
“Well,” I took another drink of milk and swallowed the food in my mouth. “Why don’t you-“ I started.
Suddenly, Pa held up a finger and pointed it right at me. “Don’t finish that thought, Mark!” Pa said. “Finish eating so you can do your evening chores.”
I bet you can guess what the talk was all about at school on Monday. The kids – especially the girls – were talking about Miss Isabel and how nice of a lady she was. Then they talked about Mr. Jupiter and how big and funny he looked. I sure wanted to punch those girls right in the nose, but I knew better then to go that far.
But that afternoon as I was walking home, something happened. I heard sniffing coming from behind the church. I turned to see what was going on. There, I saw her. It was the young woman the kids were making fun of the other day. She was sitting under a tree, a kerchief to her face and tears running down her cheeks. I swallowed as I bent down beside her. “Um…ma’am?” I called softly. “Miss Graham, should I get the doc?”
Suddenly she looked up at me. Her eyes locked with mine and she bent over and put a hand on my cheek. “Your names Mark, isn’t it?” I nodded. “Thank you,” she smiled.
I sat down beside her, suddenly feeling that she needed a friend. “It’s been a year since the accident.” She looked at me and smiled. “The accident that killed my fiancé. We were supposed to get married the next day right here in this church.” She wiped her tears again. I just sat there and listened. “Oh, he was so nice.” She leaned her head against the church house wall as she thought. “I met him right here – right in this very spot. He was sitting here one Sunday afternoon reading a book and I- Well, there was something about him that made me smile.”
She looked up at me and smiled into my eyes. I smiled back, but I saw a deep sadness…a loneliness…in her eyes. “Well anyway we started talking and I found out that he was working as a ranch hand. But he really wanted to be a minister. He said he wanted to preach in this very church.” She closed her eyes and leaned back. “A minster’s wife – that’s what I wanted to be. There’s just something about being married to a man of God, sitting around reading the Bible together and helping the people in this town of North Fork.”
I didn’t know what to say and she suddenly got really quiet. Her eyes filled up with tears “I’m just….I’m so lonely. This past year I’ve worked in that dress maker’s shop six days a week. I’ve made wedding dresses. I’ve fitted women after they’ve married and after they’ve had babies – the same women – without a day off. “It’s hard…to…” Suddenly, she burst into tears again.
I sat there, not sure what to do. “Then a few hours ago I was in my shop working when the ladies came in. They started calling me an Old Maid and talking about how I’ll never get married. When I walked out from the back they…” She swallowed and put her hands to her face. “Even the children are-“
I swallowed and suddenly put my hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I assure you I think you are a real nice lady.”
She smiled through her tears. “Thank you, Mark. Thank you so much!” She laid a hand on my cheek again. “You…you don’t have a Ma, do you?”
“No ma’am. She died when I was six.”
“Well, you tell your father that he’s doing a fine job! I’ve never met a finer gentleman.”
I smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.” Then I stood up. “Well, I’ll-“ Suddenly, I was overcome with guilt. I turned back to talk to her – to confess, but I couldn’t do it. “I’ll see you. I’ll come visit you if you’d like,” I said suddenly.
She smiled. “Oh, I would. An old maid like me gets lonely, you know,” she said sarcastically.
With that, I raced off. I rode to the ranch, but didn’t go home. Instead I rode to the pond and sat on the bank for a long time – just looking out into the water. I suddenly felt Pa sit down beside me. “I’ve been looking for you, son.”
I nodded but said nothing. “Did something happen at school today?” I shook my head as I continued to look out over the water. “After school?” I nodded. Pa suddenly put an arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. “Well, talk to me, son. Tell me about it.”
I closed my eyes for a few moments. Then I turned and looked at Pa. “Pa, if a person hears another saying…cruel things about someone and that person doesn’t stop it, then-“ I lowered my head, suddenly feeling very ashamed. “Is that person just as guilty?”
Pa didn’t answer directly. He didn’t really need to. “What do you think?” He just sat there and looked at me. I saw the answer in his eyes.
I turned from him and looked back across the water. “She’s so sad, Pa. And those words, they hurt her something awful. I heard the kids saying them and I just tried to ignore it, but-“
“Minnie Graham. She’s heard the talk that she’s a…an…” Suddenly I didn’t want to say the words. They sounded so ugly now. I looked up at Pa and saw that he wanted me to finish. “Old Maid.” I swallowed.
Pa sighed. “What they say about sticks and stones isn’t true, son. Words are very hurtful.”
“She’s so lonely, Pa. She misses him…her fiancée, so badly.” I sighed. “I wish I could help her.”
Pa just looked at me and smiled. “I think you can, son.” Then he patted me on the back and left.
The next day I went to school. It was lunch time when I suddenly heard the girls talking about the old maids in town. My head suddenly whirled around when I heard Susan mention Miss. Graham’s name. I hurried up to the group. “The next person to say something ugly about a lady in this town is going to get this!” I held up my fist. “I don’t care if you’re wearing a dress or not!” I was mad. My face was red – I knew because I could feel the heat from it. I moved my eyes from one face to another as they stared at me. “I saw Miss Graham crying yesterday because of the cruel and hurtful things you girls have been saying, and I won’t stand for it anymore!”
Susan opened her mouth to say something. “Mark, what would your father say if he knew you punched a girl?.”
“Go ahead and try me so I can let you know!” I warned. I tightened my fist. “No one in this school is going to say a thing about those poor old, lonely ladies again! Do you hear me?”
There was silence all over the playground. Not a word was spoken as me and Susan stood face to face staring at each other. Finally, she turned around and walked off. Someone began clapping, then another and another. I smiled. “Furthermore, I think it would be very nice if some of us went over to her house after school and apologized to her for some of the things said.”
Susan suddenly turned around and folded her arms. “What?”
“That includes me because I should have stopped you the other day when we were in town.” I folded my arms and lifted my shoulders to show her I meant business. She shook her head. “There were grown ups talking in her store the other day and they hurt her feelings pretty bad. Let’s suppose that we were to go apologize and show her our support. Maybe…just maybe…some of the others would follow in our footsteps.”
Susan continued shaking her head. Cam stepped up and said, “I’ll be here right after school, Mark.” Then she turned to face Susan. “I guess you’ll be spending your recesses all alone for now on if you don’t go with us!”
Then we all walked back inside, leaving Susan outside by herself.
That afternoon, there was a whole group of kids willing to go over there. She lived close to where Mr. Jupiter had just bought a house. We all walked together up to her gate. Then I opened the gate and we walked toward the porch where she was sitting drinking a cool glass of lemonade. We all stood at the bottom of the steps. She suddenly stood and came to the edge of the steps.
I took my hat off and turned to the other boys. They immediately took their hats off too. Then I turned back around. “We have come to offer you our sincere apology for the things that have been said about you around town,” I said. Cam was standing beside me and I looked at her. She stayed silent.
I nudged her in the side. “Oh,” she suddenly said. “Yes. We are very sorry, ma’am. I assure you none of us will say anything about the old-er.-“ She looked at me and cleared her throat. “I mean about the unmarried ladies of this town again.”
She stood there for a minute and stared at us. Then she smiled. “Thank you, children. That’s…That’s very nice of you. I…do hope you are sincere.”
I turned around and looked at the others. They all nodded and said, “Yeah, yah.”
“Who would like some lemonade?” She suddenly asked. Several of the kids said they would. We sat down and enjoyed the refreshing drink. I stayed long after the other kids left and started telling her how my Pa bakes an apple pie.
Mr. Jupiter came by then on his way into town. “If you see Pa, would you tell him I’m here?” He nodded. Then I went back to talking to her.
Well, I didn’t get to stay there long because I soon discovered that Mr. Jupiter’s house was on fire. By the time we got back, though, it was gone.
A few days later I walked into town from school to help Pa at Mr. Jupiter’s house. Miss Minnie (that’s what she told me to call her) called for me to come over. “I’m going away,” she announced.
I stared at her. She looked so much happier now. There was a sparkle in her eye. “Where are you going?”
She showed me a letter. It was from a man back East. “He’s a minister. I met him through a mail-order service several months ago. He’s really a very dear man.”
“I didn’t know you did that!” I stated. Suddenly, this ordering a man through mail didn’t seem so bad.
“Well, I didn’t think I wanted to pursue it a few weeks ago. But now…” She smiled. “I got another letter from him and he asked me to come.” She sighed a happy sigh. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s great! So you’ll no longer be lonely.” I smiled. I was truly happy for her.
Later after Miss Isabel told Mr. Jupiter they were getting married the next day I turned to Pa. “You were right, Pa! That mail-order stuff sure does work!”
Pa shook his head at me. But then I excitedly filled him in on Miss Minnie. But I must admit I didn’t tell him about my talk with the kids because I didn’t think he would approve!
The next day, we had a wedding to attend. I tried to talk Pa out of making me go, but he sternly told me that Miss Isabel and Mr. Jupiter were good friends of ours and we both had to be there to see them married. He then got out my suit and tie and told me to get dressed. I fussed and grumbled the whole time, letting Pa know I didn’t much appreciate putting my fancies on for a wedding. Pa finally turned to me and told me to stop my grumbling or I’d be sorry. I didn’t want to know what I’d be sorry about, so I stopped.
We met the stage in town so I could say goodbye to Miss Minnie. She put her gloved hand on my cheek and smiled into my eyes before boarding the stage. “You have helped me more they you’ll ever know!” she stated. I simply nodded. Then she turned to Pa. “Mr. McCain. You are raising up one of the most polite and well-mannered young men I’ve ever known. He’ll make some lucky lady a fine husband some day!”
Pa grinned “Thank you.” He touched his hat the helped her onto the stage.
We watched the stage ride away. Pa put his arm around my shoulder. “Hm…strange.”
“What?” I asked.
“Polite and well-mannered? My son? It just doesn’t fit!” He looked down at me and smiled.
“Oh Pa!” I said. He patted my shoulder as we started for the church. “But I still don’t like this suit! It’s all itchy and…”
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
A Case of Identity
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
Day of the Hunter
around The McCain Ranch