“I saw Micah today,” Pa announced after the blessing was said and we started eating supper.
Milly turned from the stove where she was cutting up the cornbread. “He said he’s going out of town for a couple weeks?” She questioned as she sat the cornbread on the table. “I suppose that means you’ll be doing his job.”
Pa laid a gentle hand on top of hers. “Don’t worry, honey.”
She smiled. “I can’t help it.”
“I know.” Pa took a piece of cornbread off the plate and handed me the plate. “That means, son, that we’ll be staying in town.”
I crumbled up my cornbread and stirred my beans. I took a big slice of onion and cut it up into my beans. Then I grabbed a big pile of fried potatoes. “Sure wish you did the cooking every night, Miss Milly! Your cookin’s mighty tasty!”
“Well, if she was over here every night, son, I wouldn’t have time for anything else, what with running into town and fetching her then taking her back!”
“Well, isn’t that what you like to do?” Milly smiled at Pa as they started eating.
I started thinking on how to approach Pa about those next two weeks. “Uh…Pa?” Pa turned and looked at me. “Uh…I’ve been doing a pretty good job at being responsible, haven’t I?” I half stood from my chair as Pa lifted a finger to speak. “I mean…I’ve been carrying myself like a man with doing the chores, tending the garden and…uh…checking on the cattle. I even tended to a cow who had loco weed one day when you didn’t get home until late. I do my studies without you making me too much and-“
Pa held up a hand. “Wait a minute, son. Let’s just get to the question.”
“Well…uh…I’m 13 now. I’ll be 14 in just a few months. I-“
Again, Pa interrupted me. He took another bite of beans. “Mark, the question.”
“Well…could I maybe…stay here and tend to the ranch while you’re in town?” A doubtful look crossed Pa’s face. “Pa, I promise I’ll do exactly as you say. I’ll come inside and lock the doors when it’s dark and I’ll check in with you every day.”
“No, Mark,” Pa answered.
“But Pa, I-“ My elbow sat down right in the middle of my beans. Milly jumped up to get a towel and gave it to me. “Pa, I’m old enough to-“
Pa looked again toward Milly. “I said no.” I opened my mouth to argue. “Any further discussion will be held off until our company leaves.”
Milly took a bite of food as an uncomfortable silence gathered around the table. I didn’t look at Pa and Pa didn’t look at me. Milly cleared her throat. “Mark, your father’s job is to protect you. If something went wrong-“ she started.
“But nothing would go wrong! I-“
“Milly, Mark, I said no further discussion. Let’s just eat.” Pa started scooping up the food on his fork with a bit more force than necessary.
I didn’t understand why Pa was so strict about this! I was carrying myself like a man and proved I was responsible, yet here I was, having to stay in town with him like a kid!
Pa gruffly told me to start on the dishes while he took Milly back to town. I did as told and had the dishes all dried when he got home. I was just coming in from bedding down the stock. Pa poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. “So, when are WE going to start staying in town?” I asked with a big, ugly emphasis on “We.”
Pa sighed into his cup. He slowly took a drink and sat it down. I saw him intertwine his fingers together and close his eyes. “Mark, sit down.”
From the sound of his voice, I’d say he was about to lecture me. I slowly sat down. Pa looked up at me. He sighed again as if he were trying to control his words. “Now, I know some parents allow their kids to –“
I stopped him right there. “I’m not a kid, Pa! You keep using that word, but you tell me I’m a ma-“
I stopped as Pa’s face grew angry. “Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking, boy!”
“Sorry,” I said quietly.
“You’re not a child, son. But you’re not a man. You are thirteen years old – a kid – rather you like the use of that word or not. Now, you have no means of protection. You can’t shoot a gun.”
“That’s not my fault,” I mumbled under my breath.
Pa’s head shot up again. “It’s not your fault. I’m a parent doing my best to raise and protect a son. Now, I think you should go to bed. When you’re ready to discuss this like a man, we’ll discuss it.”
I suddenly realized how rude I was being. I hated seeing Pa looking at me like that. “Pa, I-“ I started.
I turned and opened my mouth to speak again. Pa paused his cup at his lips and slowly lowered it. “Goodnight, Mark.”
I sighed. “Goodnight, sir.”
I hated going to bed with words between us, but Pa always says words spoken in anger are not easily taken back. I proved that tonight. That’s why he cut off the discussion and sent me to bed.
I sighed and lifted an arm to my forehead as I stared up at the ceiling in the dark. The moonlight danced on the wall. “Me and my bad temper!” I groaned. “Oh…me and my bad temper!”
I turned over and went to sleep.
The next morning, I smelled flapjacks and maple syrup. Pa was whistling as he cooked. I dressed and walked into the living room. “Morning, Pa.”
“Good morning, son,” Pa said. He smiled at me, but his smile was tense. “Could you go gather the eggs and milk the cow?”
Like weekdays, Sunday mornings were usually really busy for us. There was no circuit riding preacher in town so we wouldn’t have church. But Pa liked to read the Bible early then send me on my way to study and reflect on my Bible. After the dishes were washed, Pa sat down in his chair and opened his bible.
He didn’t say a word. I quickly moved to sit at his knees. I propped my elbows on his knees as he cleared his throat. “Children…” Pa stopped. I heard a break in his voice. He started again. This time it was stronger and more confident.
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right. Honor your father and mother – which is the first commandment with a promise – that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth. Fathers, do not exasperate your children, instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
I slowly straightened up and hung my head. His sermon this morning was intentional and directed at me. I heard the Bible fall closed. “Ephesians 6:1-4,” Pa finished.
There was silence in the room. Pa allowed me to think for several minutes before he spoke. “What does that say, son?”
I swallowed. “For me to obey and respect you.”
“So I can live a long life,” I answered.
“No, son. So you can enjoy a long life. There’s a difference.” Pa fell silent. “It also tells me to bring you up in the training and instruction of what?
I swallowed. “The Lord,” I answered.
“Mm Hm,” Pa nodded. “Mark?” I lifted my head. “Son, my decisions and choices for you may not always make sense to you. There may be times when you disagree with my orders and rules, but Mark, they’re there because it’s my decision after much praying and soul-searching. It’s true that you aren’t a child in the sense of age, but son, you are my child and God gives me instructions in here.” He held up the Bible. “The rules I make are only things that a parent can understand. They may seem unfair and strict at times, but it’s only because I love you so very much. Understand?”
“Yes. I think I do.” We looked at each other.
Pa smiled. “Alright. Now, I’d like you to go into your room and reflect on the passage I just read you. Son, after you went to bed last night, I spent a long time reading and praying on this passage. I asked God for guidance, and I still feel like…well, like I’m making the right decisions with the staying overnight by yourself and the rifle. Sometimes a parent can only go by their gut, and I’ve consulted our creator who is the only one who sees into the future.”
I stood up. “Mark?” I turned. Pa stood up and put a hand on my shoulder. “You are trustworthy. In the afternoons I expect you out here caring for the ranch. You can put as much work in out here as necessary but…” Pa sighed. “I request your return to town and checking in with me by nightfall. I would really appreciate you being here by dinner so we can eat together.” He grinned “I hate eating alone.”
I knew what he was saying. He’d worry if I wasn’t back by then. I would make it a point to be back by then. I turned to go into the bedroom. But I paused with my hand on the doorknob. I turned back and saw Pa reaching for his hat and rifle. “Pa, I’m sorry about last night. You’re right, I can’t understand the reasoning, but…I also don’t know what it’s like being a parent.”
“Thank you, son.” He opened the door. “You stay in there and study on that passage until I get back. I’m in the mood for rabbit stew.”
“Alright Pa,” I laughed as he walked out the door.
This was an argument that Pa and I had once in a while. Sometimes I lost perspective on Pa’s number one responsibility of caring for me. I knew it was hard.
That afternoon, Pa announced that we would move into town tomorrow. I had to stay at school all day the next day because of testing in the afternoon. After that, I was to check in with Pa. I didn’t want to ask why. I saw the answer in his eyes – it was because he didn’t want to worry.
The next morning, I paused with my hand on the door. “I’ll stop by and apologize to Milly before school, Pa.”
Pa walked up to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Thank you, Mark.”
As I sat in school that morning, I thought on our adventure in town. You know what I discovered? I wouldn’t mind staying in town at all! After all, we wouldn’t have to cook, and I wouldn’t have any dishes to wash. My wanting to stay at home was more to feel independent then out of any real desire. I’d be able to show my independence by taking on responsibilities at the ranch. Yes, there were definitely benefits to staying in town. I even teased Pa about it when I got done in school that day and rode into town. He just laughed and sent me over to Micah’s office to do my homework.
But I hadn’t sat at Micah’s desk for long before I heard a shot, no doubt from Pa’s rifle. I hurried out to the street to find a man still alive lying in the dirt. Pa and John Hamilton were bent over him. He had tried to rob the bank. Pa asked me to take the man’s horse down to the livery. I did that right away.
I started talking to Nils about what happened. “Looks like you may be building another coffin soon!” I declared. Nils looked up at me. “Uh…well…not that that’s a good thing or anything but…”
I liked to visit with Nils as he worked. Suddenly the door to his stable opened. “Nils, I’m looking for a missing boy,” Pa sated. “And there he is! I told you to bring the horse down to the stable, son, not to bother Nils in his work!” Pa snapped his fingers and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Homework. Now.”
I hurried past Pa. He swatted me on the back side as I walked by. By the time I finished my homework, Pa announced Milly had supper ready. She had just rented a house outside town and we walked to it. “I didn’t even get to go to the ranch and do any work!” I groaned.
Pa and Milly looked at each other. Pa shook his head at me. “It doesn’t matter, Milly. You just can’t please some people!” Pa declared.
After supper, Pa and I started back toward Micah’s office. Suddenly, we heard a familiar voice. “Lucas! Mark!”
Pa and I looked at each other. “Mr. Toomey?” I asked.
We turned. Mr. and Mrs. Toomey were walking down the street. Freddie and his brother, Scott, were walking with them. In Mrs. Toomey’s arms was a new born baby. We hurried up to them. “Toomey!”
Pa laughed as he pumped Mr. Toomey’s hand up and down. “Good to see you!”
“Yeah. It’s been over a year.” I shook Freddie’s hand. “We left when the Hoof and Mouth disease hit.”
“What happened to California?” I asked.
“It’s still there, but the truth is we missed North Fork. The wife and I talked a few months back. We got in today.”
“Found a place to live yet?” I asked then.
“Yes. As a matter of fact, we will be in the same house. My ranch never sold. There were some problems – fixable, of course, but I reckon they were blessings since they kept our home from being sold.”
“My Mark, you’ve grown!” Mr. Toomey suddenly declared as he patted my head.
“I reckon,” I answered. I looked at Freddie. “You’ve grown too, Freddie!” It was good to have my best friend back. “Most of the kids came back. You want to go visit with some of them?” I looked up at Pa.
He smiled and shook his head. “Be back by dark, son.”
We hurried off. I took him around to several of our friends. They were all happy to see him again. “Is the clubhouse still going?” Freddie asked.
“No, it sort of quit after you left. It just wasn’t the same,” Jeff declared.
“Well, he’s back now!”
“And I’m going fishing in Miller’s Pond after school tomorrow!” Freddie declared. “Is Mr. Griswald still there?”
“Oh yeah, he’s still there!” Billy stated. “Still mean too!” He gasped. “Oh Mark, tell him your news!”
“Oh!” I smiled. “I only have to go to school in the mornings now. Mr. Griswald said that I’ll be able to get my certificate in a year or so!”
“Wow!” Freddie folded his arms. “Well, I reckon that all your Pa’s nagging paid off!”
“Don’t let his Pa hear that! He may throw you in jail!” Jeff declared. “He’s watching things for Marshal Torrance the next couple of weeks.
“Oh, that’s great! You’ll be in town for the next couple of weeks! We can hang out like we used to. Pa said we’ll be staying at the hotel for at least that long while we clean up our house.”
“I’ll be here!” I stated. But then I remembered Pa’s agreement with me. “Oh…but I won’t be here. I have to tend to the ranch.”
“What if we all help out at the ranch? That’ll give you more time to play with us!” Freddie asked.
“You’d do that?”
Freddie slapped me on the back. “You’re my best friend, ain’t ya?”
“Alright! Let’s go ask my Pa!” There were six of us boys hurrying back to town. Pa was in Micah’s office looking over some wanted posters when we busted in. We all started talking excitedly at the same time.
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Pa held up his hands. “Gee, you guys get noisier as you get bigger.”
“Pa, some of the boys and me…we want to spend some time the next couple of weeks and play with Freddie while we’re in town. Freddie and some of the other boys said they’d help me with the chores at the ranch. I’ll be back at the hotel in time for supper. In fact, maybe we could all eat together since they’ll be staying in town and then we can play until dark and-“ My words got faster and faster as I got more and more excited!
“Alright!” Pa lifted a hand. He laughed. “I think I lost you around uh…Pa…” Pa folded his arms and shook his head. “Freddie, looks like your coming back brought the KID out in my young man!” Pa sat down on the edge of the desk and scratched his chin. “Now lets see…I’ll make you a deal, son. If you promise to come straight into town and lock yourself in this office to study in the afternoons, I’ll let you boys go out to the ranch and tend to the work – but you must follow Mark’s orders. He’ll be foreman. Then you can play together until dark. At dark, it’s homework time.”
“Yes sir!” We all said happily. We started to run back outside.
Pa grabbed me by the back of the shirt. That stopped me dead in my tracks. “And if you’ll notice, son, the sun’s going down. Time to say goodnight.”
“Oh, but-“ Pa gave me a stern look. I reckon Freddie was bringing out the kid side in me after all. “Good night,” I said to the boys.
I sat down at Micah’s desk. “Why don’t you study while I go make my rounds?”
“Can I go with you?” I asked excitedly. “I’ve never made rounds with you.”
Pa picked up his rifle. “No son, stay here and study. When I get back, I’ll lock up and we’ll head on over to the hotel.”
It wasn’t long before Pa was sitting in a chair in the hotel room reading a book and I was looking out the window. “Sure is quiet,” I mumbled.
“Even the saloon’s quiet. I bet they know the Rifleman’s on guard.” I turned and looked at Pa. I sat down on the bed. “Say Pa, it’s something about the Toomey’s, huh?”
“Yep,” Pa answered. He was only half listening.
“You and Mr. Toomey were pretty good friends too, huh?”
Pa looked up at me. “Mark, five o’clock come awfully early!”
“Five o’clock???” I asked.
“I want you to go feed the stock at the ranch before school. But I want you back here in time to eat breakfast. You’ll need to leave at sunup.”
“Oh. Night, Pa!”
It was hard getting up the next morning. Pa poked me a couple times before I finally stirred. “Hurry up and get the chores done so you can eat breakfast.”
I yawned half-way there. I let the horses out in the corral and fed the animals. I gathered the eggs and milked the cow to bring in to Milly. Pa said it was payment for feeding us for two weeks. I think she was going to enjoy it though.
When I got back to the hotel, Freddie and his family were just coming down for breakfast. I hurried over to Freddie. “Hey, let’s sit at a table by ourselves – without the folks so we can really talk!” Freddie declared.
We sat down at a table. Pa saw me and walked over to me. “Pa, can we eat by ourselves this morning?”
Pa looked from me to Freddie, then back at me. “You think you two can manage to eat breakfast AND make it to school on time without adult supervision?”
“Oh, Pa! We’re both a year older now! We won’t get into trouble!”
“Uh huh,” Pa stated as he moved over to sit with Freddie’s parents.
We laughed together like we used to. “So, how’s California?” I asked.
The waiter came to take our orders. We ordered then Freddie turned back to me. “It’s different then North Fork! It’s a lot more wild and there’s a lot more people. Seems that a lot of folks settled in California.” Freddie looked down at the table. “Truth is, it’s sort of my fault that we came back here.”
“Yeah. Mark, California is pretty wild. The town we settled in was a big gold strike town. Pa being a blacksmith and such…he had plenty of work – made a lot of coffins.”
“Coffins?” I asked.
“A lot of teenage boys – and even younger – they died there every day. The saloons were wild…always shooting going on and the law didn’t much care about the shooting. Seemed like a lot of the store owners were drunk in the middle of the day.”
“Well, I understand why your Pa wanted to leave alright, but what’s that got to do with you?” I asked softly.
Freddie hung his head as the waiter brought our food. “I’m getting to that.” He was silent for a few minutes as we ate. “There were bad things there, Mark. Kids could get a hold of alcohol just as easily as any adult. There was also a drug problem.”
“Drug problem?” I looked up at him as I put a bite of sausage in my mouth.
“Opium, mostly.” Freddie shook his head. “You don’t know how sheltered you are, Mark. You don’t see a lot of the bad stuff like we saw in California. Kids killing kids, kids being killed by their own parents, kids taking opium…” I was still confused. “Some kids take opium because it’s supposed to make you feel really good. Kinda like alcohol messes with your mind, so does opium. Then kids get to where they can’t stop. They kill each other for this stuff, Mark.” Freddie sat back in his chair. “I saw the best friend I had in California die…murdered…right in front of my eyes.”
“I was getting into trouble too. I was ditching school a lot, hanging out with the kids who were drinking and taking drugs, stealing…” Freddie shook his head. “Pa and me…we were really at odds. I would see the other kids yelling at their parents, so I came home yelling at my Pa. Mark, you know how nice my Pa is. He’s licked me a few times, but that’s all the hitting he ever did. Well, one night, I said some things to him…ugly things…things I’m ashamed of and he slapped me across the face so hard I tasted blood.”
I tried to imagine Mr. Toomey getting that upset. I tried to imagine Freddie getting that hateful. I just couldn’t. “What happened then?”
“I ran out. I stayed away all night hanging out with the other hoodlums. Then at about 3:00 in the morning, I saw my best friend gunned down by a 14 year old kid because he took the last of the opium stash. Mark, drugs are that bad. They kill!” Freddie took one last bite of his eggs before he pushed his plate back. He couldn’t eat anymore. “I was so scared. I just ran behind the building and started shaking. I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember Pa was picking me up and running out of there.” Freddie looked around the room. “Mark, when Pa got me home, I clung to him like I was six years old and cried for a long, long time. Pa had to make the coffin. He wanted me there with him – to watch what the consequences of drugs were. My friend didn’t have to die.”
“It must have been so hard.” I finished off my milk.
“You have no idea, Mark. After Pa finished the coffin, we had the funeral. His parents didn’t even show up for his funeral. They were too drunk. My Pa…he gave the boy a proper burial and said a prayer over him. Pa paid for him to be buried in the cemetery, then my Ma helped me put flowers on the grave. My brother was saved from all this…But I…I was scared. After the burying, Pa, Ma and I, we had a long heart to heart talk. Pa said he’s sorry for slapping me, but I knew it was only because he didn’t know what else to do. He said he was so scared for me. He loved me.”
I lowered my head. Freddie had tears in his eyes now as he remembered back. “Those things I said, Mark, they can never be taken back. Pa was making good money there, but Ma told him that she’d rather leave and live dirt poor then watch her children exposed to such violence. Then I remember Pa looking at me. Mark, there was something missing…I wanted it back…I remembered when we lived here and how happy we were. That’s when I started crying and begged my Pa to let us come back to North Fork. Pa said we would. The next day, we left.”
I was quiet as I thought on the suffering Freddie had done. “Pa and me…we did a lot of talking during our trip out here. We worked together side-by-side a lot as we brought the family back. I think our relationship is back to where it should be. There’s still that little…tension of the memory of words. Those things can’t easily be taken back.”
“I had no idea.” I felt bad for my best friend.
Pa, ma, and I were the only ones who knew anything. Pa wrote to your Pa and told him all about it but…Pa asked him not to tell you. I wanted to tell you personally. I wanted you to hear it from me.”
“I won’t ever tell anyone what happened.” I saw Pa stand up and start over for our table. “Freddie, when Pa and I settled here, we agreed that there was no looking back. The past is the past. Can you do that? Look to the future and not back?” Freddie nodded.
Pa slowed when he saw the solemn looks on our faces. Freddie turned and saw the worry on Pa’s face. “It’s okay. He knows everything.”
Pa crossed his arms and nodded. “I hoped you would wait until a more convenient time, Freddie.” Freddie looked toward me. Pa patted him on the shoulder. “It’s okay, son. I understand.”
Freddie stood and walked over to his parents’ table. Pa sat down beside me. He studied me silently for a few moments, leaving me to my silent thoughts. “How you doing?” Pa asked tenderly.
“Well, to tell the truth, Pa I..I’m having a little bit of trouble understanding.”
Pa turned and looked toward the Toomey family. “Mark, I don’t think even they understand it.” He turned and looked at me. “It’s hard, son, for a boy to grow into adult hood. The people around him play a big part in the person he becomes.”
I lowered my head. “Yes sir.” I started to stand up and gather up my books. “I have to go to school.”
Pa put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me back down into the seat. “Don’t worry, Mark. I’ll write Mr. Griswald a note explaining that it isn’t your fault. I want to know that you’re okay with this.”
I felt tears moisten my eyes. “I’m not.” Pa raised his eyebrows, but stayed silent. “I mean…I don’t blame Freddie. I wasn’t there so I have no right. But it just seems like they left here to find a better life and found the opposite. Pa, Freddie said his Pa slapped him so hard he bled!”
“Parenting isn’t a science, son. I can’t think of anything harder in the world than being a parent, and that’s the truth. When you see your child making wrong decisions…or when you see him taking a path in the road you know is going to hurt him…you get angry…frustrated. We strike out any way we can. I hate to say this, son, but Freddie seeing his friend murdered may have saved his life.” Pa gently laid his hand on top of mine. “As for the slap on the face…Well, I’d like to sit here and say I’d never do that to you, but son…the truth is I may have acted the same way Mr. Toomey did. He was afraid, Mark. He was so very afraid for his son. He told me that he dreamed many nights about building a coffin for his own son.”
“Things shouldn’t be that way, Pa. There shouldn’t be drugs and kids murdering kids and parents not caring for or about their children. Things shouldn’t be that way.”
“I know, son. And I’m sorry they are.” Pa squeezed my hand. “This is just another one of your growing up times.” He turned and looked toward Freddie. “They’ll be okay because he has parents who love him and…” Pa turned back to me. “He has a friend that will be there for him.” Pa grew silent as I tried to take all this in. “I hurt for you, son. I wish I could make you understand…make your pain go away, but I can’t. Do you have any questions?”
I nodded. “But I don’t think you can answer them.” I looked down at my books. I reached out and rubbed my hand across the front of it.
“I’ll be right back, son.” I watched as Pa walked over to Mr. Toomey. They spoke quietly. Mr. Toomey nodded his head up and down, then Pa came back over to me. “Son, I think it’s best…at least for today…if you stayed out of school. Why don’t you take Freddie out to the ranch. Do some chores together and go fishing in the pond. You can do your studies tonight. I’ll stop by the school and pick up you’re assignments.”
I nodded. Funny, there was a time in my life when that would have been a dream come true. But today it did little to comfort me. “Go on, son.”
We rode in silence all the way to the ranch. Freddie stopped as we rode by his house. He never said anything, but just stared at it for a while. Then he turned and smiled. When we got to the ranch, Freddie jumped off his horse and looked around. “Such memories, Mark. Remember all the kickball and baseball games us boys played here?”
I nodded. “Remember the day that kick ball went right through that window?”
“Do I?” Freddie asked as he shuddered. “Yikes! The look on your Pa’s face as he came out that front door!” Freddie stood in front of me and pushed out his body really far. He put his hands on his hips and made a really angry face.”
I laughed. “You don’t do my Pa justice! He was much angrier then that!”
Freddie laughed. “I still remember his words. “Well now, it looks like I have me some servants for a few days!”
“He sure did know how to work us hard!” I declared as I shook my head. We laughed. “We sure did get in a lot of trouble back then.”
“Yeah. I don’t think our Pa’s ever relaxed when we were together.” I watched the smile die from Freddie’s face as he sat down on the front steps. “Truth is, Mark, that I’d take that kind of trouble in a heartbeat. It’s innocent trouble. The whippings and punishments we got were rough, but we were safe and knew our fathers’ loved us.”
“Freddie…” I hung my head and sighed. “Let’s get to those chores! We have an extra axe in the shed. If you want, we can have a wood-chopping contest.”
“Then after that, we can have a cattle checking contest! Maybe followed by a cattle roping contest!”
We stood up. I started to head for the shed, but turned around and slapped Freddie on the shoulder. “It’s good to have you back.”
Freddie smile. “It’s good to be back.”
You should have seen the look on my Pa’s face when we rode back into town that afternoon. I was covered from head to toe in mud and mire. Freddie and I did manage to get ourselves in a little bit of trouble. After fishing that afternoon, we did decide to have a cow roping contest. Neither of us won – that honor went to the cattle. We were going to clean up at the house, but there wasn’t time to do that and get back to town by 5:00.
“Mark McCain!” Pa said as he hurried up to me. I climbed off my horse and stood in front of Pa. “Hi, Pa. We had a blast today!”
“Yeah. I can see that,” Pa declared. He swooshed his hand in front of his face. “What were you two up to? Rolling in the mire?”
“Well, you see Mr. McCain-“ Freddie started.
I turned to look at my best friend. “Freddie?” I shook my head.
Mr. Toomey came up then. He looked at Pa and started chuckling. “It is good to be home! I can deal with this problem!”
Pa nodded. “I know two boys who best ride down to the creek and get squeaky clean. You stay here. I’ll go get some soap from Milly.” Pa stopped as he started for the store. “Oh, and you better pray that Milly doesn’t come out to see for herself. I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop her tongue lashing!”
Freddie and I looked at each other and busted out laughing.
I sat in Micah’s office that night, being closely supervised by my father. He sat in a chair across from me reading the paper. I couldn’t seem to concentrate on my work. “Pa?”
“What Mark?” Pa asked from behind the paper.
“Is all of California that bad?”
Pa put down the paper. He folded it up and laid it on the table. “Parts of it. Parts of the East are like that too, son. It happens when you get a lot of people together. It’s just hard.”
“You reckon the whole United States will be like that some day?”
Pa leaned forward and sighed. “It’s hard to say, son. If I could see into the future, I could tell you that. I wish I could sit here and tell you that the law and educators will come together to help our children – that they can be saved from the evilness that corrupts. But the truth is, I can’t. I just don’t know.” Pa looked down at my studies. “Now uh…you only have thirty minutes before you go up to bed. Please try to get your lessons finished, son.”
I had trouble going to sleep that night. Pa came in sometime later and sat on the side of the bed. He heard me sigh and turned around. “Still thinking on it?”
“Yeah.” I sat up. “You know, Pa, today Freddie and I were remembering back to when he lived here and all the trouble we got in when we were together.”
Pa nodded as he got under the covers. “And all the trouble you’ll get into in the future.” Pa blew out the lamp and laid down. I laid back onto my pillow as well. “After what Mr. Toomey has gone through, I’d say he’ll welcome that kind of trouble. A good solid whipping will fix his boy of those problems, at least that’s what Toomey told me today.”
“You two talked a lot today, huh?” I felt Pa nod beside me. “So they’re gonna be okay.”
“They are okay.” Pa turned and looked at me through the darkness. The moonlight revealed a smile. I smiled back. “Have a good sleep, son.”
The next day, Freddie and I walked to the school together. Mr. Griswald stood in the doorway and smiled as he saw us walking up. “It’s good to have you back!”
A lot of the other kids gathered around also and told Freddie they were happy to see him. I knew the Toomey’s had indeed made the right decision.
On Wednesday night, Freddie and I sat outside the hotel talking. “So, how do you feel now?” I asked.
“I feel wonderful,” Freddie answered. “We made the right decision in coming back here. But Mark, I can’t help feeling guilty.”
“Guilty?” I jerked my head around. “Why?”
Freddie shook his head. “I don’t know. I mean, all those messed up people in California. I’m sitting here relaxing outside a hotel on a quiet night while those kids are trying to find something to eat or some stash of opium somewhere. It just seems…surreal.”
“Hm.” I thought on that for a minute. “Well, I do feel sorry for the kids, but Freddie, there’s something you have to remember.”
“What’s that?” Freddie asked.
“Those families can leave anytime they want in search of a better life…if they wanted to. It’s like your Ma said…She’d rather give up the money your Pa’s making and be poor then stay in California and have her children corrupted. All we can do is pray.”
Freddie nodded. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“Mark!” I heard Pa call from just inside the hotel. “Mark, time for bed!”
Freddie and I looked at each other. I watched a slow smile spread across his face. “That’s music to my ears.”
“What? My Pa’s nagging?”
“Yes.” Freddie nodded. “Your Pa’s nagging.” Freddie put a hand on my shoulder. “I spoke to my folks earlier today and we made an agreement. After tonight…there’s no looking back.”
I nodded. “You’ve come too far.”
We smiled again. “Goodnight, Freddie.”
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Two Ounces of Tin
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
A Young Man's Fancy
around The McCain Ranch