He didn’t come home last night. I looked at the bed where Pa slept and it was still made. The sunlight flooded the room and I jumped out of bed. I could tell it was late, and Pa hadn’t wakened me for school. I hurried into the other room. Pa’s rifle wasn’t there. There was no sign that my Pa had been home at all.
I heard a horse whinny and opened the front door. That’s when I saw him. He was leaning over the corral just staring into it. His face was very saddened and downcast and his shoulders were slumped. He looked like he had just lost his best friend.
I didn’t even bother getting dressed or putting my shoes on. I hurried down the steps as fast as I could. “Pa?” I called. Pa didn’t even turn. There was nothing in his expression to show that he even knew I was there. “Pa? What’s wrong?” He still didn’t stir. Whatever it was – the wound was very deep.
I slowly reached out and put my hand on his arm. Pa’s eyes closed when he felt my touch. I heard a deep sigh escape him. He turned and looked at me with very, very sad eyes. “Oh, morning son.”
“You just ride in?” I asked.
“No.” Pa turned back to look into the corral. I looked to see what was so interesting, but it was empty. “No, I’ve been here for…awhile.”
“Pa, what’s wrong?” I asked suddenly. I was worried – I hadn’t seen Pa this distraught since-“Did somebody die?”
I saw Pa’s sad eyes suddenly moisten at my question. My heart jumped into my throat. “Pa, who died?”
“No…” Pa swallowed as he fought his emotions. “No…SOMEONE didn’t die. But…something died…last night.”
“What is it, Pa?” I asked. Pa didn’t answer. “Pa?”
Pa swallowed. “You best…go get ready for school.” I stood there and stared at him. “Can you fix your own breakfast this morning?” Pa put a hand to his mouth as he stifled a yawn. “I’m…just not up to it.”
I could tell he didn’t want to talk about what was going on. Slowly, I nodded as I backed away. I went inside and dressed. Then I cooked some oatmeal and ate it as I watched out the door. Pa didn’t move.
I walked back outside and stood behind him. “Pa, that heifer may birth today. You up to checking on her?”
“What?” Pa turned and looked at me as if he was seeing me for the first time that morning. “Oh…Good morning, son. Did you sleep well?”
“Pa, what’s wrong?” My voice was filled with concern. His actions were scaring me. Pa only stared at me without saying a word. I cocked my head to one side.
“Did you and Milly make amends?”
At my question, Pa closed his eyes and turned from me. “Get to school, Mark,” he said roughly.
“Pa, I-“ I started.
Pa swung around. His fists were clinched at his side. “I said get to school! No backtalk!”
His angry words made me take a step back. I stared into his sad eyes that held a million different emotions in them. “I wasn’t going to backtalk, Pa. I was just reminding you that you need to check on that heifer and also you were picking up the cattle we bought at the auction today. The cattle are coming in this morning. Remember?”
I didn’t wait for a response – I didn’t really expect one. I walked into the barn and saddled Blue Boy, then after getting my books from the house, I mounted him and rode over to Pa. “I hope you’re better when I get home.”
I started to ride off. “Mark-“ Pa’s voice stopped me. I stopped Blue Boy and turned in my saddle to look at him. He opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind. “Uh…have a good day at school, son.”
“Alright.” I nodded then turned around and rode off.
But Pa wouldn’t be happy to know that I rode straight into town instead of going to school. There was no way I was going to stand by and watch my father go through such turmoil while I went to school and listened to Mr. Griswald discuss the history of Asia! I stopped in front of Micah’s office and jumped off. Micah was coming out of his office right about then. “Mark, why aren’t you at school?”
I didn’t want to concern Micah, so I casually asked him if he’d seen Pa last night. “Why yes, Mark. We played checkers. Didn’t he come home?”
“Oh yeah.” I walked beside him as he headed toward the hotel. “But uh…something’s bothering him.”
“Oh?” Micah shrugged. “Well, he left with Milly. They had some things to talk about.” Micah pointed at me. “You better get to school, son, or you and your father will have some things to talk about too!”
“Yes sir.” I watched Micah walk into the hotel then hurried towards the store. Milly wasn’t at the counter, so I called out to her. She hurried from the back and closed the door. That was a strange way for her to react. “Oh, is Mr. Chase here?” Mr. Chase had ridden into town about a week ago. He fought in the war with her brother. They had spent a lot of time together this past week.
“Harry?” Milly asked. “No, he’s gone.” Milly turned away from me. I could tell something was wrong. “Why aren’t you at school, Mark?” Her voice was reserved.
“Milly?” Milly froze in her steps at the sound of the question in my voice. I hurried around the counter and stood behind her. I took off my hat in my hands. “What’s going on?”
She turned her head to the side. “Didn’t you talk to your father?”
I gave her a nervous laugh. “If you can call it that. He wasn’t able to hold an intelligent conversation this morning.”
“Oh.” Milly slowly walked to her ledger and opened it. I followed her. I reached out and placed my hand on hers to stop her from doing anything. “You should go-“
“Not when my father and friend are hurting. Did you two have a fight?” Milly turned her head away. I heard a sob. “Okay Milly, what’s going on?”
Milly turned to face me then. She had tears running down her cheeks. “I…think we should talk.”
She opened the door to the back. There are saw crates laying as if she was about to start packing up. She led me over to a small table where I had sat so many times when she had a heart-to-heart. This time, though, there were no cookies and milk. There was just a tearful Milly and a sadness I couldn’t shake.
“Mark…your father and I…” She stopped and put a hand to her face. “What I mean is…I…” She sighed. “Okay…you’re fourteen years old now, so I should start treating you like a…” She closed her eyes and sighed. “Mark, I’m leaving.”
My throat suddenly went dry. I shook my head. “Leaving? Leaving where?” I didn’t understand.
“I’m going home to…to Kansas City.” Milly turned her head from me then.
It took a minute for her words to sink in. “Kansas City…” I shook my head as I leaned forward. “No! You can’t!” I cried.
“Mark…I never told you or your father about my brother. It’s such a painful thing. I still mourn for him. You see…” Milly allowed her tears to flow freely down her cheeks. “You see, I didn’t go to his funeral. I ran as far away and as fast as I could. We were more than brother and sister – there was a bond like…well, sort of like you and your father have.” She paused then as she looked up at me. “Seeing Harry Chase again…he was like a lifeline between me and my brother. I thought I was falling in love with him, but in reality I was clinging to my brother.”
My eyes filled up with tears. I shook my head. “You can’t just…leave…” I swallowed. “My…my father…me…” I stood up. “Please, Milly…Please!”
Milly stood up and rushed toward me. She reached out to grab my arms. “Oh Mark, I don’t want to leave you! I-“
“Then don’t!” I cried. “We can get through this together as a…as a family!”
“We’re not a family, Mark! I wish it could be but right now, I can’t give that part of myself to you. That’s why I’m going home – so I can-“
“No!” I cried. I didn’t want to hear anymore. My heart was breaking for me and for my Pa. I was blinded with tears as I ran out of the store. I heard Milly calling to me. Then I heard Micah, but I kept running as far and fast from North Fork as I could get.
When I stopped running, I found myself at the lake. The lake had a fallen tree across the water. I walked across the tree and onto a small island in the middle. Then I sat down, pulled my knees up to my chest, and stared out over the water. I remembered the pain of losing my mother. I remembered Pa coming out of the bedroom to tell me she was with Jesus now. I didn’t want her with Jesus. I wanted her with me and Pa. It took me a long time to get over that loss.
I still remember the day I met Milly. I watched the banter between her and my father and knew there was indeed something special about her. After all, there weren’t too many people who could stand up to my Pa the way she did. I remember the way she immediately began mothering me. She made sure I was dressed properly and talked to me in a way only a mother could. She fretted anytime I took risks or got hurt. Why, it seems like just yesterday she was doctoring my black eye and threatening to whip me herself if she caught me fighting again.
And now she was leaving.
My heart pumped harder as I thought on that. I didn’t understand what she was looking for. Everything she needed was here in North Fork. My Pa could make her happy. He loved her – I could tell that right off. She loved me and Pa. I can’t count the times she was at our house for supper, lovingly making us a meal with a woman’s touch and asking me about my studies. She loved me like only a mother could.
She was breaking my Pa’s heart. She was breaking my heart.
I sat there for a long time just staring out over the water. It must have been hours that I sat reliving every moment I had spent with Milly, with Milly and Pa, and watching Milly and Pa together when they didn’t know I was there. My stomach started growling, but I ignored it. I didn’t want anything to eat.
I heard a sound like someone approaching, but I didn’t even look up. I allowed the tears to remain on my cheeks as the sound came closer and closer. “Mark?” I heard Pa’s voice. I didn’t even look up. My heart was grieved and I didn’t want to grieve him more by showing my hurt.
Pa sat down beside me. “You asked me this morning if someone died. You remember what I said.”
I nodded. “Yes sir.” I stared out over the water, hoping it would bring me some sort of comfort. “You said something died. I don’t believe it though.”
“Mark, you remember when your mother died and-“ Pa started.
I whipped my head around and glared at him. “Of course I remember when my mother died! I might have only been six, but I remember it like yesterday!”
“Let me finish,” Pa said firmly. I turned from him. “Part of me died that day too. Your mother and I were so much in love and it hurt. That day, I almost packed up and ran away but…” Pa sighed as he laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. “But you needed me. I stayed and buried your mother. I allowed myself to grieve and say goodbye.” Pa sighed. “Yet, it still took me a long time to get over her death. Sometimes I…I think I’m still trying to get over it.”
“But you love Milly!” I declared.
Pa looked into my eyes. There was no readable expression in his eyes. “Yes. I love Milly.” I gasped, surprised he had actually admitted it. “I’ll always love her. She’s very special.”
“She’s leaving!” I cried.
“She has to, son.” Pa’s voice broke. He turned from me and looked out over the water. He sighed several times before he trusted himself to speak. “Do you remember how long it took you to go on after your mother?”
“A long time,” I answered. “A very long time.”
“But you were at her grave. You saw her buried. You were able to put some sort of…closure to her death, son.”
I turned and looked at Pa. “So…You’re saying that Milly never…”
“She ran, son. Her brother was like her best friend. It broke her heart to lose him. Losing him was like me and you losing your mother. She didn’t feel like she had anything to live for.” Pa turned back to look at me. He laid an arm around my shoulders. “She never said goodbye. She never grieved and all these years she’s carried that grief around in her heart.”
“You’re letting her go just like that? You can help her, Pa! You can give her what she needs!” I cried desperately.
“No, son.” Pa put his other arm around me as he looked deeply into my eyes. “I can’t…You can’t…What she needs to help her deal with this is back in Kansas City. She has to make amends with her mother and say goodbye to her brother…and her father.”
Pa allowed his hands to slip down from my shoulders as I stood up. I crossed my arms and looked out over the water again. “I don’t want her to go.” I sighed. “I feel strange talking to you about this, but she was more than a friend. She was like a…”
“A mother?” Pa finished for me. “Yes. I saw it and was very happy. I never thought this day would come, son…the day you had to say goodbye.” Pa stood behind me and placed my hands on my shoulder. “We’ll get through this together. We’ll write her and stay in touch. Maybe someday after her heart mends, she’ll be back.”
“It’s not the same.”
“No, son. It’s not the same. I’m sorry for you. You know, when you caught me in the state I was in this morning, it wasn’t just because I had a broken heart. It was because I knew your heart would be broken when you found out. It hurt.”
I turned and looked at Pa. “I’m sorry.” Pa raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t go to school this morning.”
Pa shook his head. “I understand. You were worried.” Pa folded his arms. “But there’s something else you should know, Mark.”
“You left a broken heart back in North Fork when you left. Milly’s in tears because of how you acted. She said she’ll stay if you need her to.”
Pa nodded. “But I’ve raised you to make right choices, son. I think you know what the right thing is to do here. It’s up to you.”
“Doing the right thing is painful.” I knew Pa wanted me to tell her to go.
“Part of manhood,” Pa stated. Then he turned and walked away, leaving me there to think on his words.
I didn’t leave right away, but reflected on what Pa had said. I knew what I had to do and it hurt for me to even think on doing it. But it was like Pa said, it’s part of being a man. I slowly walked back into town. Inside the Marshal’s office, I found Pa and Micah talking and drinking coffee. “Son,” Pa greeted me.
“How’s the heifer?” I asked casually.
“She’s fine, son. I expect she’ll have the baby in the next day or so.
“Did you get the cattle?” I asked then.
Pa looked at Micah and sighed. “Uh…she’s over at the store, son.” Pa looked up at the clock. “She’s closing early.”
“When’s she…” I allowed the rest of the question to die.
“Saturday. She’s…booked…on the noon stage.”
Pa and Micah watched me as I walked to the window and looked out. Then I slowly turned around. “No sir,” I answered. I smiled through my tears. “She’ll be on the noon stage.” I put my hand on the door knob. “After I’m done, can we…go home?”
Pa walked up behind me and laid a hand on my shoulder. I turned and looked at him as a reassuring smile spread across his face. “Sure you can, son. We’ll go home.”
I nodded. Without another word, I left and walked across the street. As I opened the door, Milly turned. A distraught look was on her face. She paused in her packing. “Hello, Mark.”
I looked around at the store. I ran my hand across the counter where the candy jars sat. “How many times have I come in here and bought candy from you?”
“Hundreds,” Milly answered as she walked from around the counter.
“You know…when I have a bad day at school, sometimes I come here just to see you. A lot of times, you’d take me in the back and give me milk and cookies. Then you’d look in my eyes and ask me what was wrong. You always knew when something was bothering me.”
Milly walked up to me and laid a soft hand on my cheek. “I still do, Mark,” she answered in a whisper. I looked up at her. “I happen to have some cookies in the back.”
We walked into the back together but it wasn’t the same. Crates were everywhere. I felt like she was packing up a big piece of my heart. She sat the milk and cookies in front of me then sat down next to me. She folded her arms in front of herself on the table. “Now, what’s bothering you?”
I smiled as I looked up at her. I knew she didn’t need an answer. “I want you to go,” I said in a firm voice.
“Well…I don’t, but I do. I mean…Pa helped me to see that…that you have to.” I looked away from her then. I didn’t want her to see me cry this time.
She gently laid a hand under my chin and turned my face toward hers. She wiped the tears on my cheeks. “Mark…I’ve known a lot of kids in my life, and you are one very dear to me. I’ll leave a part of my heart with you and…” She looked down at the table. “I want you to write me often – tell me how things are going with you and…” Milly looked out toward the street. “With your father.”
We sat there for a few moments just staring into each other’s eyes. Suddenly, I threw my arms around her as we both sobbed. She smoothed my hair. “I’ll always love you, Mark!”
“Me too,” I forced out. I pushed away from her. “Will you…have supper at the Ranch one last time? I want some happy memories as you part.”
Milly nodded. “I’ll fix fried chicken.” She smiled through her tears. “One of your relatives, remember?”
We laughed as we remembered last Sunday. Harry Chase, Pa, and Micah all went over to her house for Sunday dinner after church. “My relatives.” I stood up and held out my hand. “Friends?”
Milly nodded as she took my hand firmly. “Friends.”
I watched as Pa hastily unstrapped the saddle from Razor Friday evening. He was in a bad mood all day, and I didn’t have to ask why. Tonight we had to say goodbye to Milly. “I should have asked you first, Pa,” I apologized again.
Pa paused in his task and looked at me. “No son. I was going to do the same thing. It’s just hard saying good-bye to…” Pa allowed his voice to die. “I’ll take my bath first.”
I went into the house to tidy up. After my bath, I walked out of the barn to see Milly pulling up. Pa walked out and forced a smile on his face as he put his hands on her waist and lifted her down. “You look beautiful tonight, Mil,” Pa said as he smiled at her.
I knew Pa was going to make this night memorable for all of us even if it killed him. I loved him for it. Milly took out the basket from the buggy. “I brought some supplies. I…assume you have the chicken ready?”
“Oh…” I hurried forward with a smile on my face. “Pa said you’d do the honors of killing it yourself.”
Milly looked at Pa. Pa laughed. It sounded nice to see the two laughing together. I wondered if I’d ever hear that musical song again. Pa took her hand as they walked into the house.
The meal was wonderful! It was filled with happy memories of times gone by. I even got a bad look for Pa a couple times when Milly revealed information about my goings on in town he wasn’t aware of. I didn’t care, though. I knew I wouldn’t get into trouble. We’d both be much to saddened after she left to even discuss it.
I got out my guitar and strummed as we sang song after song long into the night. Each time Milly laughed I tucked it away in my heart. Without a doubt, I knew Pa was doing the same thing.
None of us wanted it, but Milly finally stood up and announced she had to get home. “I should drive you back into town.”
“No, no.” Milly looked from me to Pa. Her eyes suddenly lost their glow as she looked down at the floor. “Lucas…I don’t want you there tomorrow.”
Pa looked at me then back at Milly. “I don’t understand.”
Milly sighed as she looked into Pa’s eyes. “Lucas…what we have was…is so special. I want it to be between us. I want our goodbye to be…private.”
“But Milly, we want-“ I started. Pa reached out and grabbed my shoulder to silent me.
I heard the pain in Pa’s voice as he spoke the words. “If that’s how you want it…honey.”
Milly nodded. “Thank you, Lucas.”
We followed her out to her wagon. She turned to me and laid a hand on my cheek. “You take care now, Mark.” Her voice broke as tears streamed down her face. My own face was wet with tears. “Thank you for giving me your heart.”
I threw my arms around her and hugged her tight. “I’ll never forget you, Miss Milly. Not as long as I live!”
We clung to each other. Pa gently laid a hand on my shoulder and motioned for me to go inside. I grabbed Milly’s hand as I looked at her one last time. Then I turned and hurried inside.
Tonight, I would break another one of Pa’s rules. I would spy. Never again would I witness the sweet love between Pa and Milly. I stood at the bedroom window and watched them. The moonlight shined on them as if they were the only two people in the whole world. Pa brushed Milly’s cheek with the back of his fingers as he spoke softly to her. I watched Milly smile up at him. Then Pa lowered his face to hers as they enjoyed one last kiss.
Tears again fell down my cheeks as I watched yet another door close. When their lips parted, Milly laid a hand on Pa’s cheek and said something. Pa helped her up into the buggy. Then he stuffed his hands in his pocket as he watched her ride away.
I watched Pa go to the barn and close the door. I climbed into bed and cried myself to sleep.
*A special thanks goes out to Michelle Palmer for her insight on how Mark had seen these episodes.
Mark's Memories ― Table of Contents
You've heard Lucas' story, now hear Mark's Story
The Day the Town Slept
around The McCain Ranch