“I shot a six point buck the other day!” Freddie declared as we sat outside the General Store one lazy Saturday afternoon. “You should have seen me take that thing down!”
“By yourself?” I asked.
Freddie rolled his eyes at me. “Well, it only takes one bullet to kill it – if you know what you’re doing!” Freddie added with a sarcastic tone in his voice.
That tone riled me. I clinched my fists and slowly stood up. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just like I said, if you know how to shoot!”
“Freddie Toomey, I-“ I started.
“Mark, I’ve been shooting since I was ten years old. Remember when my Pa got me my first .22? You told me your Pa would get you one too, but he never did!”
“Yeah, Mark…How are you ever going to be Rifleman Junior if you never learn to shoot?” Bobby asked.
“I can shoot!” I declared, though I was afraid my face was deceiving me. “I can shoot just fine!”
“I reckon maybe Mark’s Pa will work up to getting him a BB gun for Christmas!” Freddie said as he turned to the other guys and laughed.
“Freddie Toomey, you’re about to get a-“ But I didn’t have time to finish my statement. Freddie gave me a hard shove. I landed on my backside in the dirt. “That’s it! You’ve been spoilin’ for this for a long time, Freddie!”
I reared forward and gave him a hard shove. Freddie landed in the dirt. But as I turned from him, Freddie grabbed my ankle and tripped me. I fell face down in the dirt. I reached around and grabbed Freddie by the arm and drew a punch on him. Freddie let out a groan and tackled me. He lifted his hand to punch me, but I moved my head and his fist landed in the dirt. I turned him over and pinned him. I lifted my fist. “You take that back!” I ordered.
“No!” Freddie shouted.
“I said take it back!”
Freddie suddenly pushed really hard against my chest. He shoved me so hard that I landed at someone’s boots. Those were familiar looking boots. I slowly lifted my head to see Pa standing beside me with his arms folded and a frown across his face. Pa bent down and grabbed me by the arm. He took his other hand and grabbed Freddie. “That’s enough!” Pa ordered.
“Not until he takes back what he said!” I shouted as I tried to bolt toward Freddie. Pa tightened his grip on my arm. “Ow!” I cried.
“Now stop it boys!” Pa shouted louder.
Micah hurried out of his office. “Hey, hey, hey!” Micah came and grabbed Freddie. “Now, what’s going on here?”
“Seems they are disrupting the peace of North Fork!” Pa declared.
“Well he started it!” I shouted. “Him and his stupid mouth!”
Pa clinched his hand tighter on my arm. “I said that’s enough, Mark!”
“He can’t take a little hassling! How you ever gonna-“
“I don’t care who started it!” Micah shouted. “I’m finishing it! Right here and now!” Micah looked up at Pa. “I think it’s time they learned this lesson like a man, Lucas boy. What do you say?”
Pa looked down at me and nodded. I saw him and Micah exchange one of those “We’ve got a good idea on how to teach these boys a lesson” looks.
“Alright, boys! Let’s go!” Micah ordered.
I turned and looked at Pa. He just nudged me toward Micah’s office. Micah led us back to the jail. “Alright, Mark. You get in that cell.”
He led Freddie down to the other. “You in there, Freddie.”
They locked the doors. Pa and Micah folded their arms and looked at us. “Now Pa, we’re just bein’ boys!”
“Yesterday you were ready to be a man, son!” Pa declared. “No, I think this will be a good lesson. When men fight in the streets of North Fork, it’s called disturbing the peace and they spend some time in jail.” Pa turned and looked at Micah. “Hungry, Micah? We could go have dinner at the hotel while these boys think on it for a bit.”
Micah nodded. “Sounds good. But uh…you reckon we oughta leave a deputy here to guard these two juvenile delinquents just in case their friends are coming to get them out of jail?”
Pa turned and walked up to the cell I was in. He grabbed the bars and moved his face as close to mine as he could get. As he spoke, he looked me squarely in the eye. “No, I don’t think they’ll try to escape Micah. I know where to find this one. And uh…I have enough on him to put him away for a long…long time…if he gets my drift.”
I swallowed. “I get your drift, Pa.”
Pa turned and looked at Freddie as he lifted his eyebrows. “And I know his father would say the same for this one.”
“Yes sir,” Freddie declared. “I can assure you that I’ll be here when you get back.”
“Will you let us out then?” I asked.
Pa and Micah didn’t answer. I jumped when the door to the jail slammed shut.
Freddie and I turned and looked at each other. “This is all your fault!” I shouted at Freddie.
“Oh no!” Freddie denied it. “This is all YOUR fault!”
At that point, we just glared at each other. Then we sat down on the cots in our cells and waited silently for Pa and Micah to return.
But Pa and Micah sure did take their time in coming back! If Pa had seen the way Freddie and I were acting, he’d say we were acting like ten year olds by giving each other the silent treatment, but Freddie had hit a really sore spot with me and he knew it. I finally turned and looked at Freddie. “You’re awfully sensitive, Mark,” Freddie said quietly.
“Yeah, but you know how I feel about the matter, Freddie!” I shouted at him.
“It was just a joke,” Freddie continued in that quiet voice of his. “I didn’t know you were going to get so riled!”
I jumped off my cot and hurried over to the bars. “You blurted out to all the boys out there that I can’t shoot a rifle! How do you think that made me feel?”
“Well, how do you think I felt when you shoved me down on the ground like you did?” Freddie’s voice rose.
“If you remember, you shoved me first. I was only defending myself.”
“Well, I was only defending myself first, because I knew you were getting ready to shove me.”
“Yeah?” I shouted. “Well, that BB gun comment was way over the top!”
“Ain’t my fault!”
Oh, the tone Freddie used… Just then, the door to the jail opened and Micah and Pa walked in. “I see we should have stayed gone longer,” Pa declared. Freddie and I turned from each other and sat down on our bunks. Pa sighed and crossed his arms. “Alright, boys. What’s it all about?”
Neither one of us answered. I did not want my Pa to know we were fighting over a rifle – especially since I’d really been hounding him for one lately. “Somebody better start talking!” Pa ordered.
“Mr. McCain…” Freddie started.
“Freddie, don’t you dare!” I ordered him.
“Mark!” Pa’s voice rose as he gave me one of his famous annoyed looks. “You aren’t acting like a 14 year old!”
I kept quiet, figured it would keep me out of any more trouble. Besides I was still sore at Freddie and the way Pa was looking at me, I’d already said enough.
“All I was going to say is that my folks are probably wondering where I’m at.”
“No, Freddie.” Micah walked up to the cell. “I saw your father at the hotel. He approves of the way we’re handling this latest tiff between best friends.”
“Well?” Pa looked at me first, then at Freddie. Neither of us said anything. Pa sighed as he leaned against the wall. “You’re not going anywhere, boy, so you might as well spill it.”
“Mark?” Freddie looked at me.
“Pa…” I closed my eyes and sighed. I had been working so hard at convincing Pa I was mature enough for a rifle. If I told him how I blew off the handle over what Freddie said, I was afraid this would be a great setback. “Pa…this is something between us. I…”
“When you are caught disturbing the peace, son, it is no longer just between the two of you,” Pa explained.
“Mark?” Again, Freddie looked at me.
I sighed. “Alright. Freddie said some things that made me mad.”
“What have I told you about sticks and stones, son?” Pa asked.
I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself! “Pa, I’ve seen you break the sticks and stones rule a few times.”
“Mark, that’s different!” Pa suddenly declared.
“How?” I demaned, I couldn’t help myself. “How is it different?”
“I had good cause to fight for the things they said!” Pa declared.
“Calling you a coward? Telling you can’t fight? And what about the time you punched someone just because they called me a liar? What about those times, Pa?”
I knew I was really pushing it. Pa pushed himself off the wall and walked towards me. He looked me right in the eye. “Micah,” Pa cleared his throat. “Let the boys out of here. I don’t think they’ll be fighting anymore tonight.”
Pa stepped back and allowed Micah to unlock the cells. Pa just looked at me. He patted my shoulder and looked from me to Freddie. “Alright boys, shake hands.”
Freddie cleared his throat. Freddie shook my hand. Suddenly, he got this little smile on his face. “I’m sorry about the crack I made about the BB gun, Mark. See ya!”
Then Freddie rushed out. “He did it again, Pa!” I bolted forward, but Pa suddenly grabbed my arm. “That Freddie Toomey!”
“What crack about the BB gun, son?” Pa asked.
I didn’t look at him. I was already thinking on my revenge for Freddie. “Alright,” Pa nodded. “ Let’s go home.”
As we rode home, I stayed silent as I thought on my actions of the day. I realized now what I hadn’t realized before – that I had again lost my temper. Pa had told me many, many times that my temper was something I had to learn to control if I wanted to keep myself out of major trouble when I grew up. I turned and looked sideways at my Pa as he rode beside me. He knew how to keep his temper under control. Oh, I’d seen him get his dander up alright, but when it came to fighting and not, he could usually control it.
I had again failed to prove that I was old enough for a rifle. I knew that’s why Pa was upset with me. If I wanted a rifle, the old “boys will be boys” excuse would no longer work for my Pa, and now…I realized that. I knew that when I got home Pa’s stern talk would be focused on that.
I sighed as we stopped the horses in front of the barn. Quietly we unsaddled them, gave them their evening grain and hay, and then headed to the house. Pa stopped, allowing me to walk in front of him. As I walked, I felt like a condemned prisoner on the way to the gallows. Because I knew I was guilty of cold-blooded, unjustifiable impulse…again!
Pa and I entered the house. I went and stood in front of the fireplace and I heard Pa set HIS rifle in its stand and then remove his hat. I heard him sit down in his chair and he cleared his throat. “Now…about the fight…”
“Pa, I’m really sorry about disturbing the peace and speaking to you the way I did right before you had Micah open the doors.” I couldn’t look at Pa just yet. I knew if I did that I’d end up blurting everything out like a ten year old. I wanted to prove to Pa that I was the young man he was raising me to be. That I could discuss this calmly, if he let me say it, my way. “Freddie said something that just really struck a nerve.”
“Son, I’m sure Freddie was just being Freddie.” He folded his arms. “Now, what were you two fighting about?”
I sighed. “Freddie started bragging about…well, about going deer hunting the other day. Then he said that I couldn’t shoot and everyone heard it and now they all know it.”
“Yeah, I know Pa. But it’s a matter of principle. What others didn’t know didn’t hurt anybody. I mean, it wasn’t wrong to let them think that I knew how to shoot. I never told them I knew how, they all just kind of assumed because I was your son.” I sighed. “Then he told me that maybe I’ll get a BB gun for Christmas!”
There it was out and I finally turned to look at Pa.
“I see.” Pa motioned for me to come and sit down with him.
“Pa, most of my friends have been shooting since they were ten! ”
“Do you know when my Pa taught me to shoot, son? Do you know how old I was?” I shook my head. “I had two older brothers who were learning, so my Pa started helping me hold a rifle when I was only seven years old. I’d watch my brothers target practice and hunt, and I would do everything I could do to get as good as they were as fast as I could. By the time I was your age…I was a cocky crack-shot. I could out-shoot both of my brothers and I bragged about it all the time.”
“ReallY? You were that good at my age?” I asked.
Pa nodded. “I’m sorry to say that I was married to my rifle by your age. I let everyone know it too – got me in a fair amount of trouble. You see, people don’t like braggarts.”
“You never told me that before, Pa.”
Pa nodded. “I know. It’s not something I’m proud of. Son, every man needs to learn how to shoot a rifle so he can kill his food and protect himself; but a boy has no reason to learn. I don’t want you to marry your gun; because like a real marriage, once you marry your gun, you can’t back down. Remember Johnny Drako? He tried hard to divorce his gun, but he couldn’t. And do you remember that other gunfighter that rode through North Fork – Wes Carney? He tired to divorce his gun as well, but he couldn’t.”
“I think I know what you mean, Pa,” I answered.
“Son, a firearm is a lot of responsibility. I’m not looking just for when you have the ability to learn – you’ve had that ability for a long time. I’m looking for when I think you can look at it and see it as a weapon to use with caution, not something that’s sporting. It’s not for sport. It’s a tool we use for protection and for food. That’s it. What if you lost your temper, son? What if you went off in the mouth like you sometimes have a tendency of doing?”
“That’s why you don’t like handguns, ain’t it Pa?”
Pa nodded. “Handguns have their purpose, I reckon. But a rifle is a tool. I see too many handguns in use today. It seems there are people with them that have no business having them. When the time comes, we’ll buy you a rifle, and I’ll teach you how to use it. There’s nothing wrong with being good at using it like I am, but there is something wrong with having to carry a weapon all the time.
Pa nodded. “Like me. Granted there have been many a time that I was thankful I had my rifle to protect our friends, and you. There have been many a sleepless nights where I wondered, if I didn’t always have my rifle at hand, would the trouble have come to that. Son, there are men out there who will poke at you, just like Freddie did today, because they see you carrying a weapon. They like to kill for… Some men kill for the sake of killing. And then some men fear they have to carry a weapon all the time, because they’re scared of what would happen if they didn’t. I guess that’s why I’ve made you wait for so long, Mark. Because I want it to be something you can take or leave. It’s not a part of you like mine is. It’s really very important to me.”
“But Pa, if I don’t have a rifle of my own, how will I know whether it will be something that I can take or leave? Pa, you’re the second person who told me that I shouldn’t become married to a gun.”
“When Johnny Drako was here last month, you remember when I asked you if I could go see him?” Pa nodded. “Well I tried to see him from outside the saloon, but he saw me and motioned for me to come inside. And I did.”
I saw the look on Pa’s face. “Now, wait a moment before you go off on me about that. Johnny talked with me about what I was doing and it made me realize that idolizing him for his gun, the way I was, well, it was a lot like seeing the monkeys at the zoo. Anyway, he put his handgun on the table and told me to pick it up. Pa, I did pick it up, but I put it right back down. Johnny told me that’s the way it should be, that I should choose not to be married to a gun.”
“Why did you put it back down?”
“It didn’t feel right, and not because I knew you would be mad at me for picking it up. It felt cold. It felt like death.”
“I guess you are understanding about weapons,” Pa said as he rubbed his finger under his nose.
“Pa, you have to let me become a man…, someday.” I said this as gently as I could.
I saw him smile. “You know son, I remember when we first rode onto this ranch four years ago. You were so cute as you tried to chase the cattle out of the yard. At the time…” Pa sighed. “At the time, I thought we had forever together.”
His voice sounded as if he were mourning. I guess he was, he was mourning losing his little boy.
“We do, Pa.” . It tugged at my heartstrings to see my Pa like that.
“No. In a few short years…” Pa turned. “You will no longer be my boy. This is hard for me.” Pa slowly walked toward me and put his hands on my shoulders. “I’d say we’re closer than a lot of father and sons because we’ve had to depend on each other. The first day I laid eyes on you and held you in my arms, I felt this…this bond, and I promised you the moment I looked in your eyes that first day that I would always protect you. I’d always be there for you.” Pa smiled as he thought on that. Then he quickly lost his smile. “In a way…it feels like yesterday. And now…”
We just looked at each other. I saw the pain in Pa’s eyes as he did a little more letting go. I saw the struggle he felt. I knew I should go easy on him, but it was hard when I wanted so badly to become a man. I felt there was something I had to say to help him. I finally sighed.
“Pa, you know…I don’t have to grow all the way up when I get the rifle. It’ll take me time to learn to use it, and I’ll be like any other boy and only use it to go hunting…” I laid a hand on his shoulder. “With you.” I smiled. “This will just be a little step.”
I think Pa’d had all of this conversation he could stand for one day, because he suddenly patted my shoulder and stood straight up. “Well son, I’m gonna go bed down the stock. You get yourself a sandwich and then get the bath water ready huh?”
I watched Pa leave and smiled to myself. I wondered in that moment just how much letting go Pa had done …
I sent myself to bed early so I could think on this stuff. I guess I had realized all along that Pa had a very good reason to make me wait. He saw the hurt his own father had caused him by letting him begin shooting so early. Pa knew that, like me, he had a bad temper himself that got him into a lot of trouble. I’ve heard the talk about Pa being “wild” in his early days, and I wondered if he ever killed a man because his temper got out of control…
But there are some things I’d rather leave buried – and that was one of them…
I sighed as I ran a hand through my hair. I realized my fight with Freddie had been childish and for a childish reason; yet here I’ve been trying to prove to Pa that I’m no longer a child. I did feel bad about it now, but now was too late. I should have thought about that BEFORE the incident.
Now, I thought about the conversation I had with Pa earlier. I had a better understanding of why Pa was so reluctant to buy me my own rifle. He admitted that I was ready for the responsibility…but he was concerned about my temper.
I sighed as I turned toward the wall. In that moment, I came to a decision. I decided the best way to show Pa that I was ready for a rifle, was to keep out of trouble, meaning keeping my temper under control. I promised myself that I would do my darndest to keep my good grades up at school and do my chores without any reminders from Pa. And if Freddie said anything out of line well, I could be the bigger man and walk away.
The next Saturday Pa and I headed into town to get our supplies. Upon our arrival, Freddie came running up to me, all excited and out of breath. “Mark you just got to come see what they have at the hardware store. It’s a brand new rifle!”
After stepping down from Blue Boy, I turned to Freddie. “I’m not interested, Freddie.”
“Huh?” Freddie gave me the strangest look! I couldn’t help but to chuckle as I said that.
“Freddie, my Pa gave me a really good talking to and explained to me the importance of having a rifle. But he also explained to me why he’s making me wait. Now, I want to meet those conditions, and going running off with you to see some rifle that I know Pa will never let me have – even when I’m thirty – isn’t going to get me what I want!”
“Ya ain’t even gonna come look at it?” Freddie asked.
“If our errands take us to the Hardware Store, maybe. But right now we have supplies to get from the General Store.”
“You sick or something Mark?”
“No, just realizing I’m growing up and I need to behave as such.” I saw Freddie scratching his head as I turned and walked away. I met Pa on the boardwalk.
As I stepped beside him, Pa put his hand to my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
A month passed. I took great pains to make sure I remembered to control myself when it came to fighting and even arguing. There were times – even with Pa – that I didn’t agree, and every ounce in me wanted to tell him as much. Now, even when I was young, my back-talking got me no where but into more trouble, but I would still do it at times…and live to regret it…thankfully! Sometimes Pa would even remind me what the Bible says – that if children want to live long, healthy lives, we’ll obey our parents.
Well, I was beginning to see what that meant…
Saturday came again, and as usually, Pa and I headed into town. But today would be different. Today would be a good day for my growing up, but a bad day all at the same time! You see, here’s how it happened:
When we got to town, we saw a large crowd gathered and heard someone talking loudly. Turns out a drummer, for one of the traveling circuses, was stopping in North Fork. He talked big of the acts; high wire walkers, exotic animals, and clowns…Then he mentioned a show he did with his pistols. He was quite enthusiastic about letting everyone know about the circus and that it was heading out west.
He said he saved the best for last, he pulled an old rifle out of his saddle’s boot, that got my attention. He held it up high for everyone to take a good look. In fact, it would soon be here in this very town of North Fork! I could hardly wait!
Then Marty…Oh, that was his name, by the way…Marty made some really fantastic news. “I have here for your inspection a 1795 genuine flint lock, used by none other than Daniel Boone himself!”
He passed it around and let the crowd take a look at it. My eyes followed the rifle as it came closer and closer to me. I was excited as I anticipated holding the rifle of Daniel Boone, the man Pa himself told me was responsible for helping to settle the country over a hundred years ago! When the rifle came around to me to took it in my hands and took a real good look at it. The steel was cold and exciting as I thought about all the time Daniel Boone had lifted it up onto his shoulder and taken aim at some animal or human who was about to be threatened with the rifle. In response, I butted the stock to my shoulder, imagination taking over as I thought back to Daniel Boone himself doing that. Then I looked down that very long barrel. Just to hold it in my hands was sure something exciting!
Suddenly, Marty directed his talk right at me! "Well son, I can tell by the way you handle that rifle you must be a cracker jack shot! I'll tell you what I'll do...I'll load that rifle up and we'll show the folks just how good you are! How about that?"
Of course, part of me made me want to jump up and down in excitement as I begged him to load it, but then I remembered that Pa was standing right behind me, and I knew that he’d expect me to answer wisely, or he’d do it for me. “OhWell, I’ve never really…fired a rifle before,” I answered nervously. You know, it did bother me, admitting that I didn’t know how to fire a rifle, but not as much as it had a month ago. I reckon that was because I knew if I wanted my own rifle, I’d have to do this like a man, not like a little boy.
"Well you’re certainly old enough to learn!”
As soon as those words came out of Marty’s mouth, I inwardly agreed with him, but without looking at Pa, I could imagine the look he had on his face, and it wasn’t pretty! You see, if there’s one thing Pa hates, it’s someone else – especially a stranger – telling him how to raise his own children. Now granted, Pa’s give some parental advice to others every now and then, but I reckon he felt this was needed.
Even a three year old would know that piece of advice was unnecessary…and anyone who knew my Pa knew that Marty had just taken a big step in causing my Pa to dislike him!
I’m not sure what would have happened if Micah hadn’t shown up just then! The little smile Marty gave was quite cocky, and I’m afraid that if Pa had had to stand there much longer and see it, it would have been his pleasure to remove that smile from Marty’s face. Now, I can’t say for sure if Pa would do that or not, and I wondered if THAT would be acting on impulse…
But then it’s like Pa always tells me…sometimes I have to trust him to pick the right time and place to tell me his reason for fighting. And so far, the time and place still hadn’t come. Adults had a way of being able to justify themselves when kids couldn’t…it was one of those things I’d understand when I grew up.
So, I must say that I was happy Micah showed up when he did, even if he did end the show. Micah sternly told our guest that the street was not a midway and he didn't want to see anyone get hurt. He ordered Marty to tuck the rifle away, and for some reason, he quickly obeyed. But before ending his speech, he told the crowd to be sure and watch out for the circus and that the exact date would soon be announced.
I hoped it was soon, because something I wasn’t ready to be too old for was a circus with exotic animals like elephants and tigers and lions and monkeys and…boy oh boy, I even began wondering if there would be candied apples there…
But now wasn’t the time for all those childish thoughts! I had something much more important to contend with…the matter of the rifle.
As the crowd broke up, I turned to Pa. There was something deep inside yearning for a rifle. It was something that wouldn’t stay quiet about it, so I decided to take a risk. At this point, I was ready to get down on my hands and knees and beg Pa!
"Pa...I've been asking you for an awful long time now. Can I…” I stopped as I nervously asked. How did I put this delicately? “...would...” Okay, in that moment, I knew there was no delicate way to put it. I’d just have to blurt it out! “Would you let me have a rifle?"
Boy, you should have seen the look on Pa’s face after I asked that question! He looked surprised that I had blurted out the question so bluntly, I reckon. And in the next instance, I saw him to open his mouth to reply, but I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to hear the words I was about to say…
So very quickly, before Pa could get a word out, I turned to Micah. . “Wouldn’t you say I was old enough Micah?"
Now, I suppose it was a pretty low down trick on a two accounts. First of all, I put Micah on the spot by asking him to give Pa his opinion and he was stuck between us. Second of all, Micah knew Pa well enough to know that if he said the wrong thing Pa could have him for breakfast! By the look on Micah’s face, I could tell that he was really struggling with my question, trying to find a way to please us both at the same time. So, he didn’t say I WAS old enough, but he didn’t say I WASN’T old enough. I reckon I can say that he tried to go somewhere in the middle – stay safe…
And maybe asking this question right out on the street probably wasn’t my best option, but at least out here I knew Pa wouldn’t make a big scene of it stating, “Over my dead body.” …or…”NO!” in a very loud voice like he would have done at home. So, maybe I WAS thinking right…And who ever said that I was beyond the age of trickery?
"Well I'd say you've been putting in plenty of time Mark.” Okay, that was safe enough. But that just made me have to turn and plead my case with Pa even harder. I reckon you can say I was a McCain – when I saw something I wanted bad enough, there was NO stopping me!
"Is it really asking an awful lot Pa?" I asked then. "I...I'd just use it for hunting rabbits and possum and I'd never take it off the ranch!"
“Well son, you…” Pa started.
It would take a little more convincing. I was pleading…begging, I knew, and it was all I could do to keep from getting down on my hands and knees and really begging! “I’ll be really careful, Pa! And you’ll never be sorry that you let me have it.” I looked Pa squarely in the eye. “ . "Please?"
We just stood there looking at each other. I saw the weakening in his eyes. Suddenly, I was pleased to see a smile on his face. "Alright...maybe you are old enough at that."
Joy filled my entire being! I could not believe after practically ten years of begging for a rifle, that Pa was FINALLY giving in to my begging and pleading! I just couldn’t believe the words I heard, I had to stop myself from jumping and tossing my hat up in the air. Oh boy, that would have shown Pa how ‘grown up’ I was. It took considerable restraint but I managed to turn to Pa and say “Thank you.”
But inside, I was jumping up and down shouting, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Pa put his arm around my shoulders as we turned and walked across the street toward the…AHEM…gun shop!
As we walked inside, Pa paused in the doorway. He looked down at me and sighed as he gently touched my cheek. I could see the far away look in his eyes. Maybe he was remembering back to when I was a little boy, or maybe he was remembering back to when he was a little boy…or maybe he was remembering back to BOTH times…
We entered the shop as my heart began pounding. I stood just inside the door with Pa. This was one place I’d watched from afar – Pa hadn’t let me in there too often by myself because I would always start drooling over all the rifles, and he didn’t like that much. "Well, what can I do for you today, Lucas?” Angus, the gunsmith, asked with a smile on his face. “And Mark, what’s that grin on your face for? You look like you just won a pot of gold!”
Pa slapped a hand on my shoulder. “Angus, you have a new customer today.”
Angus looked at Pa, not understanding at first. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh?’ Suddenly, his eyes grew wide and he gave me a smile. “OH!” He smiled at me. “You here to buy a rifle, Mark?”
I looked up at Pa who winked at me. “I sure am!” I answered.
Pa crossed his arms and cocked his head to one side. “Well now, that explains the happy grin on your face there, boy. Uh…What sort of rifle would you like to look at?”
I looked up at Pa who only shrugged his shoulders. “It’s your rifle, son. I uh…”
I turned back to Angus, who first showed me a Winchester center fire, .44-40. He said the magazine held six shots.
"That's too much Angus, Pa said suddenly. I think it was the six bullets at a time that got to Pa. “What about that Winchester model 73?" Pa asked.
I reckon Pa was having a little bit of trouble growing up still. Only a second ago, he’d given me the power to make the decision on his own, and now he seemed to be taking that decision-making ability back. I didn’t argue, though. As long as I got a real rifle, I didn’t care what it was! I had to meet my Pa halfway, after all! So I listened while Pa and Angus discussed the rifle that was right for me.
Angus said he did have a used .22, he took it on a trade. Angus told Pa he worked it over and it was in perfect order and he'd let me have it for seven-fifty.
I took the rifle and nervously I tried it. I held it up against my shoulder and tried it. It was a lot lighter then my Pa’s rifle, but I wasn’t going to make any complaints! Pa hadn’t said a flat-out no to that one, so I decided to encourage him a bit. “It feels just right too, Pa!” I declared excitedly.
“There ain’t none better!” It was Marty. That's a real smart gun to start the boy out on, sir! If you don't mind my saying so."
I asked him if he liked this model. “Oh, I cut my teeth on a ’73!” he declared. I sure was impressed! He sure did know his guns! “
I introduced myself and Pa to the drummer. He told us his name was Marty Blair. He hoped we hadn't thought he showed off too much in the street - he was just trying to create interest for the circus. Pa told Marty he handled himself well. But there was something with the way he said it…
“Are you staying long in North Fork?” I asked him then. Marty told us his plans were to rest up today and head out tomorrow to some more towns and let them know the circus was coming.
I sure was interested in talking to him! He seemed to know a lot about shooting and guns and circuses and all. “Would you like to come out to our place for lunch?” I asked Marty. I know I shouldn’t have asked, without seeking Pa’s permission first, but…Pa always did say I was a little impulsive at times…
Besides that, Pa said it was okay.
“Alright Angus, we’ll take the rifle.” Pa reached in his pocket and took out some money.
“Oh Pa, thanks! Thanks a lot!” I declared. Boy, I must say that this is one of the happiest days of my life! As I held the rifle in my hands, I suddenly felt nervous about learning to shoot it.
Pa said okay. I guess he couldn’t have really said otherwise without offending Marty. I was ready to head home with Pa and Marty, but next thing I knew, Marty was showing me how to aim it. I was excited with the fact that a showman from the circus was taking the time to show me how to aim the rifle. I was so busy paying attention to what Marty was teaching me, that I had no idea this bothered Pa. I would soon figure it out, though! You can count on that!
“So Marty,” I started as I rode my horse beside his. I was excited that I now owned a rifle and was eager to find out more about Marty. “How old were you when you started shooting?”
“Nevermind, Mark!” Pa spoke in a controlled voice in front of us.
“Pa, I was just asking-“ I started.
Marty touched my arm. I looked up at him and he shook his head and pointed at my Pa. I knew he was telling me this was a fight not worth fighting. I decided to take his advice and change the subject. “How long have you worked for the circus?”
Pa slowed as Marty answered. I think he was suddenly interested in the conversation. “I’ve been working for it for oh…about five years, I’d say.”
“Do you do any trick shooting?” I asked excitedly as I leaned way over in the saddle. Blue Boy whinnied. I don’t think he liked my sudden leaning like that. I patted him and straightened back up.
“I show my shooting demonstration every now and then, but I’m mostly a scout for the circus. I ride on ahead and tell folks the circus is coming.” Marty looked around. “Have you ever had a circus here?”
“When I was ten we had a carnival. They had a wild man there – he was like half man, half animal. Do you…have anything like that in your circus?”
“A wild man?” Marty wrinkled up his brow. “No…no, I don’t think so, Mark.”
“Then Pa and me went to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show once. Have you ever seen that?” I asked then.
“Nope,” Marty answered again.
“Oh boy, but it was something! They had trick shooting, bow and arrow shooting, elephants and tight rope walkers…They had-“
“Mark!” Pa’s voice sounded irritated. “Move a little faster, son. I want to get home.”
“Yes sir.” We picked up the pace and the talking died. When we got home, Pa told me to take all three horses to the barn, unsaddle them, and feed them. I did as I was told. When I walked out of the barn, I found Marty filling up his six-shooter with bullets. He twirled the cylinder a few times. “You can really shoot that thing, huh?”
Marty nodded. He found a tin can laying in the yard and pointed to it with his gun. “Throw it up in the air, Mark.” I did as told. He filled it full of lead before it hit the ground. I counted all five of his shots – they went right through the can! I walked over to the house where I had propped up my new rifle. Marty helped me put the bullets in it, then he showed me how to hold the rifle on my shoulder. He worked on me for quite awhile.
“Mark!” Pa came to the door. “What are you doing?”
I turned and looked at Pa. “Marty’s giving me a few pointers, Pa!” I declared.
Pa scratched under his nose. “Well…It’s time for lunch. Come on!”
After Pa said grace, I turned to Marty and asked him if he’d show me out to shoot after lunch. Marty nodded. “I’d be proud to, son. That is…” Marty turned and looked at Pa. “If you don’t have any objections, Mr. McCain.”
“Well actually…” Pa started. I stared at him hopefully. I wanted to start learning right away! Pa saw the excitement on my face and sighed. “Alright.”
“Yes!” I took a great big bite of my sandwich.
“Mark!” Pa said my name in that warning tone of his. I just gave him a look and acted like I had no idea what I’d done wrong.
I ate quickly…too quickly for Pa’s liking. “Can we go outside now, Marty?” I asked.
Marty wiped his mouth and stood. “It was a fine lunch, Mr. McCain!”
We started out the door. “Mark,” Pa stopped me.
I turned. “Yeah, Pa?”
“Oh, but can’t those….” The question died in my throat when I saw the very stern expression on Pa’s face. One more word could have removed the rifle from my hands, and I knew it…”I’m sorry, Marty.”
“No problem, Mark. I’ll just go outside and look over the ranch while you do your chores.”
Pa walked to the window and crossed his arms as he looked out. I saw him shake his head. “What’s wrong, Pa?”
“Hm?” Pa turned and looked at me. “Oh uh…nothing, son.” Then he grabbed his hat. “I’m going to the barn.”
I was just about to fire my first shot. “Now,” Marty said as I put my finger on the trigger. “Make sure you aim really good on the can. Imagine that it’s your worst enemy or a great big bear…or a rattler…that will get you if you don’t squeeze the trigger!”
My hand was nervous. I could feel it shaking as I squeezed the trigger. When the rifle finally went off, I felt myself bolt backwards. “Wow!” I declared.
“Nothing like it, Mark! It’s the greatest feeling in the world!” Marty declared with a shake of his head. “Why, pretty soon you’ll be wondering how you ever got by without it!”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t have hit the side of the barn!” I declared.
“That was just your first shot!” Marty reminded me.
“I know, but…” I sighed. “How old were you when you fired your first rifle?”
“Well, I held the rifle and my Pa had to help me pull the trigger when I was only five or six.”
“Five or six!” I gasped. “That’s young! Really young! Why, my Pa was just about that…” Almost on command, the barn door opened and Pa started out. “Uh…Let me try again.” Marty again reminded me of the way I should be standing, then he let go and told me to pull the trigger.
I was finally able to remember how to hold myself with the rifle. Marty went to set some bottle up on an old fallen over tree. “Now, try for the first one.”
I pulled the trigger. “Missed!” I groaned. Marty reminded me I had to have patience, then he told me to try another bottle. I fired again. “Missed again!”
“That’s a little better, Mark,” Marty assured me. “Look…sight easy…” Again, he helped me position the rifle. “Now draw in your breath…now, don’t let it out until you squeeze…”
Again, I fried, but I didn’t hit anything. “I’ve got a lot to learn. It’s not as easy as it looks.” Pa had been watching me from the porch. I told him I wasn’t too good. Marty tried to make me feel better though.
As usual, I was all ready to brag on what a cracker jack shot my Pa was. “You should see my Pa shoot!” I declared. “Show him, Pa!”
Pa just looked at me. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He looked as if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to brag.
Well, Marty had no problem! He took my rifle, cocked it, aimed, and fired. Then he gave my Pa this grin that must have irked my Pa, because he took the rifle that was in his hand, aimed, and fired several times. Then he flipped it.
“I sure couldn’t top that, Mr. McCain, no sir!” Marty declared as I chuckled proudly. Marty then asked Pa how old he was when he started shooting.
“I was young. Too young,” Pa answered quietly.
“No, I don’t believe a boy can be too young! Makes him that much better when he grows up.” Marty declared proudly. Oh boy, I should have warned him to be sensitive to Pa about that matter…but Pa set him straight really fast…
“That’s where you and I disagree, Marty.” Pa stated then.
“Did you ever have to kill anyone, Mr. McCain?” Marty asked then.
Boy, he surd knew how to get on my Pa’s bad side! “I’ve had to shoot my way out of a few scrapes,” Pa answered. I knew Pa didn’t want to brag – but if the truth were known, I’d say it was more than a few…
“Have you…ever shot anyone, Marty?” I asked then. He told me he’d never shot anyone that didn’t shoot at him first. Pa told him it was the same with him.
Pa told me it was time to get cleaned up for supper. I asked Marty to stay. He was so exciting to talk and listen to that I didn’t want to see it end! Marty told me that he’d be back some day. I sure hated to see him go! Before he left, Pa asked him where the circus was. Heck, I didn’t know he was interested in the circus!
I watched Marty leave. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was just something so…so exciting about him! “Were you like him, Pa?” I asked. I always wondered what pa was like when he was younger…I mean before I was born…
“No,” Pa answered. But he answered it too fast. He knew I knew he wasn’t being honest with me. He changed his answer. “Well, I guess in a way I was, son,” Pa stated. We watched Marty ride away. “Come on, inside. Supper!”
When I walked inside, I noticed that Pa had warmed up the stew from last night. There was only one plate and bowl on the table. I sat my rifle down…Hm, MY rifle…that had a nice ring to it! Anyway, I sat my rifle down by the door and went to wash up. “Pa, why’s there only one setting at the table? You riled at me again?”
“No,” Pa answered as he started for the bedroom. “You’ll be dining alone tonight.”
Pa started unbuttoning his shirt. I put my hands in my back pockets and walked toward the door. “What do you mean I’ll be dining alone?”
“I’m going on a picnic,” Pa said as he began whistling.
Oh…I knew what that whistle meant. It meant Pa was going courtin’ again! “And uh…how many will be on this…er…picnic?” There was no answer. I spoke louder. “I said how many…”
“I heard you the first time!” Pa declared as he started washing himself off with soap and water. “I was just avoiding the question.” Pa cleared his throat. “There’s just two of us.”
“And uh…the other party on this picnic…would it happen to be a uh…red-headed wolverine?”
“Yep…” Pa suddenly turned and looked at me. He pointed a finger straight at me. “I told you to forget about that, boy!” Pa demanded quite sternly.
I chuckled as I crossed my arms and leaned against the door jam. “Say Pa…” I cleared my throat. “I don’t know if you realize this or not, but uh…it’s going to be dark soon. Are you going on a picnic in the dark?”
“Ain’t that gonna make it sort of hard to see the food, Pa?” I asked then.
Pa started combing his hair. “We won’t need much light, son. They’ll be a big, bright moon tonight.”
“So you’ll be eating this meal in the moonlight? You sure that’s enough light?” I teased then.
“Well, yes, son. You see…” Pa suddenly stopped. He picked up a towel and threw it at me. “You get in there and eat your supper!”
I couldn’t help but to laugh. As I ate, it began smelling quite fancy in the house as Pa got all dressed up and looking like he was stepping out of a bath house. I stood and walked over to Pa as he did some final primping in the mirror. “Say Pa, you look and smell really good! You’d never know you didn’t have a full bath tonight!”
Pa turned and glared at me. “You just make sure you get yourself in bed on time, boy!” Pa declared. I laughed as he grabbed his hat and rifle. He paused as he reached for his rifle. I saw him touch my rifle and run his hand up and down it. “Say Mark…” Pa turned. “I don’t want you shooting your rifle when I’m not here. I want it to stay against this wall. You hear me?”
“Well Pa, I-“ I started.
Pa turned and looked at me. “Mark, it’s not that I don’t trust you. I just don’t want you messing with it alone until I’m confident. Understand?”
When I got up Sunday morning, I hurried out to start my morning chores. I knew that Pa had plans to go to church and we’d need to get an early start. But as I came into the house, I saw Pa with his regular clothes on and setting oatmeal on the table. “Ain’t we going to church, Pa?”
“Oh, no son,” Pa answered. “The reverend is out of town today so we’ll worship here at home.”
“Oh.” I sat down and bowed my head. Pa said the blessing. As we started eating, I decided to tease Pa. “Well, you and Miss Lou stayed out on your date really late last night, Pa. It must have been midnight before you got home. Kept the lady out kinda late last night, huh?”
Pa raised an eyebrow at me as he paused in buttering his bread. I cleared my throat and looked away. “As a matter of fact, son, I DID get Lou home at a reasonable hour. There was some trouble.”
“Trouble? You mean you had to use your rifle?” I asked.
Pa sighed. “Listen, Mark…I’ll tell you about it after we do our worship time. I don’t want to ruin it…okay?”
“Amen.” I looked up at Pa as he closed his Bible and sat it on the table next to his chair. It had been quite a spell since I’d sat at his feet as he read a passage from the Bible! I stood up and stretched. Pa stood as well. “Now, son…If you’ll sit at the table, I’ll tell you about what happened in town last night.”
I could tell right away that it was something Pa didn’t want to tell me. Fear suddenly gripped me. I began fretting that it had happened to someone I knew… Pa cleared his throat as he prepared to speak. “No son, you know I’m a pretty good judge of character, right?” I nodded. “And usually my instincts tell me right away rather the person is good or…not so good, right?”
“Yes sir,” I answered with question in my voice.
“When I brought Lou home last night, the hotel was being robbed. Somebody was trying to break into the safe and steal her money.”
I held up my hands. “Who?”
“Marty,” Pa answered as he averted his eyes from me.
“What?” I asked in shock. “No way, Pa. That’s impossible.”
Pa suddenly lifted his head and looked at me. “Why’s it impossible?”
“Well…” I stood up and stuffed my hands in my back pockets. “Pa, I know you don’t like him! I don’t know why, but I can tell, so you just assume that…”
“I’m not assuming anything, Mark…” Pa said in a controlled voice. “I know.”
“You saw him do it?”
“I…” Pa sighed. “I saw the person run out. It was dark. Then I fired my rifle in the direction they were fleeing. When I ran to look, it was Marty. I had shot him.”
“You…” I slowly walked toward him as I planted my hands on my hips. “You shot Marty?”
“He was leaving the scene of a crime, son. I had every right!” Pa declared.
“Is he…” I swallowed. I didn’t want to hear the answer.
“No. I just got him in the hand,” Pa stated.
“I want to go see him.”
“NO!” Pa boomed out. The walls almost shook with the sudden loud noise.
“Pa! You don’t KNOW that he’s guilty!”
“Yes Mark, I do!”
“No you don’t, Pa!~ I raised my voice. “You want him to be guilty!”
Pa narrowed his eyes at me. “Don’t you raise your voice to me, Mark!” Pa ordered. “And I don’t know what that crack means but-“
“I’m not blind, Pa. There’s something you don’t like about him…Maybe you think he’s a braggart, but he’s nice and fun. He’s working for the circus – that’s it! You’re just trying to blame him. Maybe…” I sighed. “Maybe it’s because he was teaching me to use the rifle yesterday.”
I sucked in my breath and closed my eyes. It had come out so fast. Once again, I’d spoken irrationally when I should have held my tongue. I saw sudden anger come into Pa’s eyes. “I’m-“ I started.
Pa held up a hand. “No, your not, Mark. If you were you wouldn’t have said it!” Pa and I just looked at each other. I saw such a deep hurt in his eyes. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I knew my words would be hard to take back…hard to forget…
“Pa,” I swallowed…hard…before I said the next statement. “I’m…” I folded my arms in front of me as a barrier against him. “I think he’s innocent.”
“Yes.” Pa turned and banged his hand on the table. “So you said, Mark!”
“You said I’m growing up!” I said, suddenly angry. “Well, I…I’m old enough to make my own decisions now! I have a rifle, and you said that takes a lot of responsibility, so if I’m responsible enough to own my own rifle, I’m responsible enough to make my own decisions.”
Pa had turned from me. He now whirled back around. “I’m still your father!” Pa shouted.
“I know you’re still my father!” I turned from him. “And I respect that.”
“It sure doesn’t sound like it,” Pa said in a quieter voice.
“It’s just because you’re wrong!”
“Mark…” Pa stomped over to me. He stood right in front of me. “I’ve been in this world for close to 40 years now, and I have a lot more wisdom when it comes to people, and I’m telling you that he’s guilty! He’s…he’s guilty as sin!”
“I’m going to see him!” I declared. “You’re wrong, Pa! You’re wrong! He needs friends right now. I…I’m going.”
I started to turn away from him, but he locked eyes with me. I saw the disappointment in his eyes. They flashed with anger and burned right through me. I suddenly turned away.
Pa stomped out the door. I turned back and followed him out. “Your riled cause I’m going to visit Marty?”
“I think that’s plain without you asking!”.
“Then tell me not to go and I won’t, Pa.” It was more of a challenge then a suggestion. I had been so defiant. I almost wished he’d forbid me and punish me. It would make me feel a bit better.
But Pa didn’t say that. “If you feel you have to visit him, then go ahead.” His voice was laced with anger.
“Pa, I remember you telling me something once. If you believe in something or someone, no matter what the odds are, you should always back your own belief."
“I’m not telling you anything different now, Mark.”
I sighed. “I’m not just being stubborn, Pa. But Marty’s my friend. There’s been some sort of a mix up.”
Pa suddenly turned to me. “Everything that happens points to him as being the thief. He’s a born liar!” Pa turned.
I felt my temper again flaring. “That’s just the way you feel!”
“Then tell me not to go,” I challenged him again.
We were silent as Pa thought on this. He finally answered. “If you’re old enough to own your own rifle, your old enough to make your own decisions!”
I knew what decision Pa was expecting me to make, but he left the decision up to me. Marty was my friend, and I still felt that Pa wanted Marty to be guilty so he’d have an excuse to dislike him. Without another word, I got on my horse and rode off.
But I could feel Pa’s burning, glaring eyes staring at me in the back. I had to get out of there!
I rode as quickly as I could from the ranch. Everything in my being wanted to put as much distance between my Pa and me as I could – and that really scared me. I didn’t understand it. Why was my father, who was once my best friend now seeming different to me. Today, I was seeing him as just my Pa who didn’t see the truth of what he was doing – not as a friend who understood me.
But I didn’t allow myself to reflect on that. I knew that in time things would be settled between us. I walked inside and nodded at Lou. “Marty upstairs?” I asked.
Lou looked behind me as if she were looking for someone. “Where’s your father, Mark?” she asked. Had she seen something on my face that showed we were at odds with each other?
I walked up to the desk as casually as I could. I tried to keep the frustration and anger from my voice as I spoke to her. “Oh, he’s back at the ranch. I just came in to see Marty.”
“You did?” Lou seemed surprised at this. “Mark, does your father know you’re here?”
“Of course!” I answered a little too quickly…and perhaps a bit too loudly. “Excuse me.” I cleared my throat. “What room is Marty in, Lou?”
“Room seven,” Lou answered. She put her hands on her hips. “Your father uh…approved of you coming?”
I didn’t answer. I knew the answer to that and it sent twinges in my gut. “Uh…I’ll talk to you later, Lou.”
“Mark!” She squealed as I hurried up the stairs. But I ignored it.
Marty was happy to see me. I wasn’t sure if he would be since my father was responsible for shooting him. What had gotten into Pa anyhow? I just didn’t understand any of this! “I’m glad you came to see me. I didn’t think your Pa would let you.”
If there was any time I wanted to feel like a man, it was in this moment. I found myself wanting to be like him – carefree and easy…free as a bird…But his words hit a nerve. There was only one thing I could say in response to this. “He wouldn’t stop me.” Marty was taking this whole misunderstanding a lot better than I was. He wanted to forget the whole incident. I wanted to believe my Pa felt the same way. I wanted Pa’s image to stay the same…”He feels the same. He’s sorry it happened.”
I averted my eyes from him because in truth, I knew I was lying. It’s what I wanted to be true – but it wasn’t true. “I wish I could believe that, Mark,” Marty stated honestly. “I’d feel a lot better if I could, but you don’t have to lie because of me.” I didn’t know what he meant. He said my Pa had no use for him. He could tell even before the shooting that Pa didn’t like him.
That upset me. I sure wished he hadn’t. I had hoped so much that he hadn’t known the truth. I tried to laugh it off, but the truth was…something deep inside me was eating away at me…slowly…and painfully!
I walked back down the stairs. Lou was still there. “You work even on Sunday’s?” I asked.
“People have to sleep and eat even on Sunday’s, Mark.” She put a hand on her hip and walked toward me. “Now, what’s going on?”
I averted my eyes from her. “Nothing, Lou.”
“Your father rode into town a few minutes ago. I went to speak to him and he told me to mind my own business!” In spite of the situation, I couldn’t keep a grin off my face. “I see nothing funny!”
“Boy Miss Lou,” I said with a shake of my head. “I bet you gave him a good earful for that!”
“You bet I did!” Lou declared. “Now, what’s between you two?”
I turned and opened my mouth to tell her to mind her own business, but somehow, I didn’t think neither Pa nor Lou would appreciate that coming from my mouth. I just shook my head. “See you later, Lou.”
“He’s at the Marshal’s office,” Lou reported.
“Oh. Well, I’m going home.” I started out the door.
“When your father’s here?” Lou asked.
“Yes ma’am.” I tipped my hat and hurried out the door. Then I hopped on my horse and started down the street. Something made me stop, though. I turned and looked toward the Marshal’s office. Pa was looking out the window. I just shook my head, dug my heels into Blue Boy’s flank, and galloped out of town.
Even though it was Sunday, I decided to do some work. Riding the range and checking the cattle was something I figured could clear my mind. But it didn’t help. The whole time I was riding, voices from earlier haunted my mind. I heard my Pa’s angry voice yelling at me when I announced I was going into town to see Marty. I heard my own voice yelling at Pa as I mentioned his jealousy from yesterday. I heard Marty’s voice as he told me he knew my Pa didn’t like me.
I went back to the barn and unsaddled Blue Boy. Then I furiously began cleaning out the barn. I raked the soiled hay out of the stalls as if there was no tomorrow coming. When Pa came in, he didn’t say anything to me at first. I didn’t turn and look at him. “Hello, son,” Pa finally said in a stiff voice.
“Figured you’d be relaxing, seeing as how it’s Sunday. I don’t assign you any chores on Sunday.”
“This ranch is as much my responsibility as it is yours, Pa,” I said in a stiff voice without stopping my chore.
I didn’t let him finish. “I’ll brush down your horse for you, Pa.” I walked over and took the reins, but I still didn’t look up at him.
Pa sighed. “Alright, son. I’ll go warm up this Irish stew Lou sent home.”
“I’ll be in as soon as I finish up here.” I turned and went back to my chore with a very heavy heart.
After I sat down at the table, I listened to Pa say the blessing. He asked God for understanding…for both of us. Something in my heart had melted as he prayed. I decided it was time to talk - not about what happened earlier, but about what I knew…I cracked the thick ice by announcing I went to see Marty. “I know,” Pa answered. I could still hear the hurt and disappointment in his voice.
“He doesn’t hold any bad feelings.”
“You know I do,” Pa stated plainly.
Pa wasn’t helping me any. I had hoped he’d be willing to meet me halfway. “Usually when it comes to judging people, Mark, we pretty much see eye to eye. What is it about this Marty that makes us feel so different?”
I had a feeling I knew the answer, but I wasn’t going to bite a second time today. I couldn’t stand it when we fought. “I wish I knew.”
“What makes you like him?” Pa questioned. It was an innocent question.
“I just do,” I answered. “Can’t always explain those things, but…maybe it has to do with his not being much older than me and yet he’s all on his own…able to do what he wants and able to take care of himself and go where he wants…You gotta admire that.”
Until I said those things, I didn’t realize that’s why I liked him so much. He seemed to be what I wanted to be. There was nobody to tell him yes or no. There was nobody to make him feel guilty when he made a irrational decision. There was nobody to…
I stopped my train of thought. Again, I didn’t like where it was going. “Why do you feel the opposite of me?” I was really hoping Pa would give me the truth on this…at least the truth in how I saw it.
“I thought it was his smile…it comes too easy. To polite with it, like he’s pressing to make you like him. Anyway, after something Micah told me today, I don’t know if that’s the real reason.” I waited for Pa to explain that, but he didn’t. Instead, he changed the train of thought. “Mark, I have an idea which can prove which one of us is right.” I looked up at him. “You planning on seeing him again tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” Pa told me it would be like playing a trick on him, but if he’s my friend, it won’t matter. It would prove if he was the thief at the hotel.
“You…willing to take the chance?” I nodded. “Alright…” Pa ate silently for a few moments. “Now, Micah is trying to check out his story about being in the circus. He’s sent telegrams along the line to see if anyone’s heard of him.”
“Pa, he is working for the circus!” I stated.
Pa’s eyes suddenly flashed. “Son, one thing you need to learning about adulthood…when two people have a disagreement, you’re willing to talk it out – to get to the truth. Now, I have good reasons not to trust him. They are reasons you wouldn’t understand, but they are solid reasons, and Micah knows it too. Don’t fight me on this, son!”
I started to stand up. “And don’t leave food on your plate.” I sat back down as he continued speaking. “Now, if he knows that we are onto him, he’ll more than likely flee in the night when we can’t catch him. So tomorrow, I want you to tell him what we’re doing. Tomorrow night, I’m going to stay at the stable in town. I’ll watch and wait.”
“And I’ll be there with you!” I declared.
“No!” Pa shouted. “You’ll be right here, Mark!”
“I want to be there, Pa! He’s my friend – not yours!” I saw anger flash in Pa’s eyes. I shook my head and went back to eating. “I did it again.”
“There’s no school tomorrow, Mark. So I want you to go into town in the morning, break the news, and then get home.” Pa wiped his mouth and stood from the table. He walked over to the door and picked up his hat. “I’m…going to the barn.”
I jumped as the door slammed behind him.
I went to bed early. There was something between us – a wall had been built up, and until Pa saw that Marty really was the person he said he was, that wall couldn’t be knocked down. When Pa came back inside, I heard him come into the room. I turned to the wall and pretended to be asleep. “Mark, I-“ Pa stopped when he entered the dark room and saw me in bed. “I…” Pa sighed. “I just wanted to say goodnight.”
I heard the door quietly close. I turned and stared at the door Pa had just left through. It should all be over by Tuesday morning, and for that…I was happy.
I went into town the next day and told Marty what Pa and Micah was doing. As I came back down the stairs, Lou was coming out of the dining room. “I can tell things are still amiss, Mark.” She put a hand on my shoulder to stop me from leaving. “I want to help you two.”
“You can’t, Lou,” I stated.
“Mark, your father loves you. You know that.”
“Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, I know.”
“You’re going through some difficult years, Mark. I remember those years. You’re no longer a child, yet you’re not yet an adult. You have your own mind and want to make your own decisions.” Lou folded her arms. “Oh Mark, I’m not going to pretend I don’t know what’s going on, but…just remember that your Pa’s dislike for Marty is…well, it’s nothing against you. You’re father…”
“I thought Pa told you this was none of your business!” I suddenly shouted. As soon as I saw the look of shock on her face, I closed my eyes in regret. “I’m…sorry, Miss Lou. That just came out.”
“Yes.” Lou touched my shoulder again. “I remember that when I was your age as well, Mark. Just remember that you’re Pa’s still the same person he’s always been. It’s you that’s growing and changing, and it’s hard…on both of you.”
I suddenly looked up at her. What she said suddenly hit me…hard! I won’t say that I understood where Pa was coming from, but I knew where he was going…and that’s all that mattered. I smiled as I touched her hand. “Lou…” I smiled into her eyes. “Thanks for once again not minding your own business!”
When I got home that day, I found Pa out plowing the wheat field. I hurried up to him. “Need some help?” I asked as I smiled up at him.
Pa stopped the horses and looked at me. “Everything okay?”
“No, but…I’m willing to try, Pa.” I stretched out my hand and gave him a painful smile. “I’m willing to try.”
All day, Pa and I worked side-by-side planting the wheat field and working on the ranch. I quit early enough to fix an early supper. Then before Pa left, he asked me to work on my studies. I nodded, assuring him I would. Then I watched him leave.
But as I tried reading about agriculture and government, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t concentrate. I paced the floor more then I studied, and I kept wondering..and worrying. Finally, I slammed my book shut. “Well, if I get in trouble, I’ll just deal with it!” I declared to myself as I grabbed my hat and hurried out the door.
I rode into town and up to the livery stable. I tied my horse in front of the hotel then quietly snuck down to the livery stable. I remembered that Pa had his rifle in there, and any sudden moves could cause him to act. Quietly and carefully I opened the door. The livery was dark and I could see nothing. “Pa?” I called quietly.
“Mark!” Pa wasn’t happy with me.
I hurried inside. “I couldn’t stay home, Pa! I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t! Don’t make me this one time!” I begged. “Please.”
I prayed Pa would understand. Finally, he answered. “Alright, close the door and come over here! Quick!” I did as he told me to. “Now, you stay behind this wall. And no matter what happens, don’t you move!” Pa ordered.
I agreed to do that. “But nothing’s going to happen. I know it won’t.” Every ounce within me told me I was right.
"And if you’re wrong?" Pa asked as he looked at me.
"Then I owe you an apology," I answered.
"The same goes for me," Pa stated.
We waited all night. Neither of us said anything. I knew there was still so much between us. I wasn’t sure how to fix it.
Marty never came. It looked like I was right after all! A rooster crowed. I tried to keep from it, but a yawn escaped. Pa turned to look at me. “It’ll be daylight in about an hour,” I said as I broke the silence.
“Then we can go home, son.” I knew that then, we could begin tearing down that wall…the wall we had worked on this afternoon.
Suddenly, the door was opening. I prayed it wasn’t Marty. I prayed it was Nils coming to work early. I waited behind the hay in anticipation. A shadow was in the door. Pa turned and nodded at me. My heart sank. I felt a sour feeling in my stomach as I came to a cold hard truth – a truth I’d known all along, but I truth that was far beyond the reaches of this barn.
"Who's there?" Marty suddenly asked.
Pa came out from behind the bale of hay. I followed him. "I've been waiting for you Marty," Pa said.
Marty nodded. “It just occurs to me…what Mark said about the telegram was trap, wasn’t it?”
I answered for Pa. “And all the time I was wrong.” I grew angry. I was so very angry at myself. “You’re nothing but a liar! A liar and a thief!” I yelled as he bolted forward. Pa grabbed my shoulder to keep me from going at Marty.
I might have been yelling at Marty – I was calling him a liar and a thief…but way down deep…way down, I knew who I was really accusing and it hurt me so badly. It hurt as reality suddenly set in.
Marty spoke, but I could hardly listen. "I've been on my own since I was a kid, I never had any breaks. I was kicked around, no family, always trying to find some place to roost. I tried to make it go with the circus kid, but they just didn't pay enough to take care of me and my horse.” "Don't trust him Pa!" I said quietly, and again, I wasn’t just talking about Marty. There was someone else – something else – that I was talking about more.
Pa kicked the saddle bench over. It knocked him to the ground. His gun went off. He was that close to shooting us. I immediately turned to me. “Pa...I apologize for being wrong."
Something died in the barn that day. Something I’d had my whole entire life. The grief was hard…strong…and real. I hurried from the barn, got on my horse, and took off for home.
There were no tears – not this time. The events from the last two days raced through my mind as fast as Blue Boy raced across the range. I patted Blue Boy’s sweaty neck as I dismounted him and tied him to the hitching post. Then I went inside, fell on my bed, and went to sleep.
When I woke up, I sat up and saw Pa sleeping in the bed across the room. I didn’t know what time it was. I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep. But judging from the sun, it was mid-afternoon. I freshened up and walked out of the house. Thoughts were still whirling inside my head. I made my way down to the pond where I sat on the bank and stared out across the water.
How many times had I done this before? How many times as a boy had I sat on this very bank and stared out across the water as thought tormented my mind? I thought on Lou’s words now. She said my Pa wasn’t changing, but I was. I was growing into a man – and that could be one of two things…either I’d become a man Pa could be proud of, or…I didn’t want to think of the other…
I heard someone walking behind me. I knew it was my father. He sat down on the bank next to me. “I thought I’d find you here.” I didn’t say anything. I really didn’t know what to say. “It’s a good place…to think.”
I nodded my head. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking here, Pa. Seems every time you come at just the right time to clear up my thoughts and help me see the truth.”
“Mm hm…” Pa nodded. He studied me silently for a moment. “But uh…as you get older, my job gets harder.”
“Get older.” I let out a little laugh. “A good friend told me something yesterday, Pa.” I turned and looked at him. “You know what? She was right.”
“I’m changing. I’m no longer the little boy who thinks what you think and wants to copy you. I want to be my own person…make my own decisions…do things my own way…I feel like that’s wrong, and yet…it feels so right.”
“It is right, Mark.” Pa’s voice broke at the end. I turned and looked at him. “I don’t want you to be a miniature Lucas McCain. I want you to be Mark McCain – nobody else.”
“I may disappoint you.” That hurt to say. I didn’t want to disappoint him. “I…I was wrong, Pa. I was so wrong.”
“And now you know, son. That’s how you learn.”
“Not…not just about Marty, but how I spoke to you, the things I said, the way I said them.” I sighed.
“These are difficult years for you, son. You’re changing. You’re no longer a boy, yet you’re not quite a man. It’s hard to…well, to understand. You’re beginning to think differently then me. You no longer need to…to cling to me.” I closed my eyes. “Is that it?”
“That’s part of it.” I looked down at the grass. I had to look somewhere..anywhere but at Pa. “You want to know what died in that barn today?”
Pa nodded. “If you want to tell me.”
“My boyhood…my imaginations…Everything I ever thought I was. I saw Marty, Pa. I saw him for what I always wanted to be – carefree, free from being told what to do, free from having to do this and do that and when to do it…I thought I wanted to be a crack-shot rifle shooter. I thought I wanted…”
“Part of me died in that barn today too, son.” I turned and looked at him. He put a hand on my shoulder. We just smiled at each other, but I was still unsure.
“When I called Marty a liar and a thief…I was really talking about something else.” I sighed in frustration. I didn’t know how to word this. “I can’t say exactly what it is, but all these years…I had this image – this…this…I don’t know what I thought it would be like – and now I know that it lied to me. It robbed me of something…I’m so confused, Pa. I’m so…so confused.”
I put my head in my hands. “It’s something no one can describe son. Every man…and woman…faces it around your age. You change. The Mark you were a year ago is dead. He’s replaced with a whole new Mark. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way things are. I wish I could explain it to you better, son but it’s like Lou said…” I turned and looked at Pa. We smiled at each other. “You’re changing and I’m staying the same. It will cause differences in opinions and what happened Sunday – it won’t be the last time.”
I accepted the fact that this was something I’d have to go through on my own, in my own way, and reach my own understanding. But there was something else I had to say.
“Pa, you don’t have to say anything in response to what I’m about to say. I know why you didn’t like Marty. I know it’s because you were like him once. The rifle grew you into something you didn’t want to be. Until Ma came along, you held on to that boyhood imagination of yours – being the best…having people think you were something…I know there are things you don’t want to tell me.”
“There are things I’ve done that involve my rifle that I’m not proud of, son. I saw myself in Marty in more than one way. These are things that I put behind me – things I’ve walked away from, and I don’t want them to be dredged back up. But if it’s important to you, I’ll tell you.”
Pa looked me in the eye. “Pa?” Pa raised his eyebrows as I spoke softly. “Did…Ma know about these things?” Pa nodded. “Well…if she knew about them and accepted you anyhow, then that’s good enough for me.” We smiled at each other as the wall came tumbling down.
Things between Pa and I almost returned to normal. Almost, but not quite. He no longer demanded my obedience to all his instructions. No that’s not exactly right, I knew what Pa expected me to do and if I got stuck on a problem, he didn’t tell me how to get out of it, but more often than not he made suggestions, allowing me to make decisions. It felt weird to no longer be ‘told’ everything.
But one night, as I laid down in my bed, there was something still bothering me. Something that still didn’t seem right between Pa and me. The moon was shining through the bedroom window and I heard Pa breathing, while he slept in his bunk, but I still couldn’t get to sleep. I stood from my bed and walked to the front room. As I walked to the front door and placed my hand on the knob, I realized what it was, ‘my’ rifle. That was it. That was the final brick that still remained of the wall between Pa and me. Deep down, I knew that I wasn’t really ready for it. As much as I wanted to own a rifle, I felt I had betrayed Pa in my friendship with Marty and because of Marty, Pa had given in to my pleading for a rifle.
The following morning, Pa and I hitched up the team. While Pa went to turn Blue Boy and Razor out into the corral, I went into the house. In my jacket, I hid my rifle and placed it under the seat of the buckboard. I knew what I felt I had to do.
Pa parked the buckboard in front of the General Store and told me he’d be right back. As I saw him enter Micah’s and close the door, I jumped down from the buckboard and grabbed my gun out from my jacket. I entered the gun shop and saw the owner behind the counter, I spoke, “Mr. Angus, I want to return this rifle.”
He asked me what was wrong, if there was something wrong with the rifle.
I told him, “It’s me. I realize now that…that I’m really not ready for it after all.”
Angus asked if it was because I couldn’t get the hang of it.
“No, it’s not that. I just…Please!” I begged as I shoved it toward Angus. “Will you take it? Pa left me in the wagon while he went in to see Micah, and I want to get back there before he realizes I’m not there.”
Angus agreed to take it.
As I started to turn, Micah and Pa walk in. Micah needed his shells. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden a tremendous guilt swept over me. Maybe it was guilt that I knew my Pa had been right all these years in not giving into my begging for a rifle. I heard Pa walk up behind me, as I allowed my head to drop. I knew he saw the rifle I once owned sitting there. I didn’t know what to say. I just wanted to get out of there, but Pa and Micah, well, I knew they were blocking my retreat.
"Like I was saying, this fellow being older, wasn't any wiser, he was taken in too," said Micah.
"Well you can't always tell a book buy it's cover," I heard Pa say.
To me their conversation made no sense at all. I guess I kind of thought Pa would say something more encouraging to me, that was the hardest part to face.
"Still you have to give someone credit who will stick by what he believes, until he's proven wrong," said Micah.
"One way to learn is to make the other fellow proves his point.” I guess they were talking about me, but I still couldn’t get over my guilt. “Well, come on, son.”
I felt Pa tap on my arm. “Come on.”
Micah had moved out of the way, so I started for the door. “Uh Mark?” Pa said from behind me.
I turned around, but didn’t have the heart to look at Pa. I still felt so ashamed for not trusting my father’s instincts. First about the rifle and second about… Marty.
"Didn't you forget something?" Pa asked.
The silence got to me. I looked at Pa and asked, “What’s that?”
“Your rifle,” he replied.
We just stood there looking at each other. At first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Pa said ‘my rifle’. I mean he had proved to me that my judgment wasn’t as good and I thought it was, and if that was the case, then I didn’t deserve a rifle… But still, Pa said, ‘my rifle’. Slowly I over to the counter, any moment I expected Pa to tell me to hand it directly to Angus, I picked it up in my hands.
Pa hadn’t said anything as I walked back over to him. So okay, maybe he wouldn’t have me give it back to Angus, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t take it from me. I looked up at Pa, still so unsure. Pa looked at me.
I saw something more in Pa’s eyes that day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that look or if I had, I didn’t understand it. I think, maybe, it was because I was becoming that young man Pa was trying to raise. We had a new respect for each other… Pa was willing to let me fall, but would always be there to catch me before I hit the ground. Any other time, Pa was there to protect me, to keep me from getting hurt, to keep me from falling. I realized that while we wouldn't always see eye to eye, it would never change the love and admiration we had for each other as father and son…and best friends. Yes, my best friend, my father.
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
The Most Amazing Man
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
around The McCain Ranch