I jumped out of bed that morning. The sun was shining bright through the bedroom window and Pa hadn’t even tried to wake me up! He always woke me up on this special day, but today he hadn’t. I hurriedly dressed and opened the bedroom door. Pa was putting breakfast on the table. “Well, it’s about time you were getting up!” Pa declared.
“It’s about time I was…” I went to the basin to wash up. As I wiped my face off, I turned toward the table. Pa was setting the food on the table. “You know that you have school today.”
“School today?” I declared then. “What do you mean-“
“Now Mark, every day of school is important!” Pa said sternly. “You’ve been going to school long enough to know that.”
“But Pa…today?” I asked then.
“Why not today?” Pa asked.
“Well, I just figured…” I allowed my words to die as I sat down at the table. Pa placed a pile of pancakes down in front of me. “There, you see!”
“See what, son?” Pa asked
“Pancakes! You never fix pancakes on a school day!” I declared as I poured syrup on them.
Pa sat down as he took a sip of his coffee. “Ah, yes! You are right, son! I almost forgot!” Pa smiled as he poured syrup on his own pancakes. “This is a special day.” I smiled, happy he had finally remembered. Pa took a bite of his pancakes. “Yes sir…I remember it was close to uh…wel…hm…fifteen…no about 18 or 19 years ago.” I lost the smile on my face. “Yes. It was. It was 19 years ago to be exact! Your mother invited me to her house for breakfast and we had pancakes. Oh, they were so good!”
“Really?” I asked.
Pa laughed. “No…not really, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings., I had almost forgotten about that day. I had no idea how long ago it had been and then, I dreamed of that day last night.” Pa pointed to my food. “Now…eat so you can get to school!”
I couldn’t believe he didn’t remember what today was! As I cleaned up the dishes, Pa went to saddle my horse. He sure was acting really nice to me…oh, except for the dishes…but still – he didn’t act like he knew that today was special to me.
I walked out with my books. “So…I really have to go to school today, huh?”
Pa nodded. “You sure do!”
I got on my horse and rode off. I have to admit, though, that I was a little upset that Pa didn’t remember what I always thought was a very special day.
We weren’t in school long when it happened. In fact, Mr. Griswald had only been teaching for about an hour. A note suddenly fluttered to my desk. I lifted my head and looked around, but there was no way of knowing where it came from. I stared at the note. “Meet me at lunch at the Oak tree. Lorrie.” I groaned. Suddenly, I gasped and looked up at Mr. Griswald who had stopped talking at the sound of my groan.
He stared hard at me as he stood from his desk and walked to stand next to me, and then looked down at my hands. I closed my eyes in despair as I realized that I was still holding the note in my hands. “Mr. McCain?”
“Yes, Mr. Griswald?” I asked as I felt my face reddening.
Suddenly, Freddie who was sitting in the seat beside me let out a snicker. His snicker turned to laughter. “Freddie Toomey!” Mr. Griswald suddenly declared. “You two boys see me at recess!” I elbowed Freddie and he grunted as Mr. Griswald took the note from my hand and turned away.
It was only thirty minutes later when Mr. Griswald dismissed everyone for morning recess. Freddie and I stayed in our seats. Mr. Griswald stayed at his desk writing on a piece of paper. “Why isn’t she in here?” Freddie asked hurriedly. I guess he was hoping Mr. Griswald wouldn’t hear him.
“I don’t know,” I whispered back. “But I ain’t letting her get away with this! That snippy Lorrie…Why, I’m gonna give her a piece-“
“Mark McCain, come up here please,” Mr. Griswald called to me, demanding my attention. I swallowed hard as I stood up and made my way to the front. Mr. Griswald folded a piece of paper and stuck it in an envelope. He then sealed the envelope and handed it to me. “Take this to your father. And I will see you tomorrow.”
“Well…sir!” I turned and looked at Freddie who simply shrugged and snickered again. “Ain’t I getting a little old for notes home to my father?” as I turned back to Mr. Griswald in hopes that he’d forget this little matter.
“I agree completely, Mark.” Mr. Griswald whipped off his spectacles. “In fact, I’d say boy of your age should know better than to play such immature tricks in class as to pass a note.”
“ME???? Oh, but sir! I didn’t…” I held up my hand in defense. “This ain’t fair! I-“
“That will be all, Mr. McCain.” Mr. Griswald gave me a warning look. It had been a long time since I’d seen that look, that I almost forgot all about it.
“What about Lorrie?” I asked then. I couldn’t help myself. I was so mad!
“You let me take care of her,” Mr. Griswald answered. “Now…run along and make sure you get that note to your father as soon as you get home!”
I turned and walked out the door. I heard Mr. Griswald ordering Freddie up to his desk then. I walked to Blue Boy and hung my books over the saddle horn. “Mark! Mark!” Lorrie ran up to me. I turned and glared at her. “Mark, I’m awful sorry! Honest, Mark!”
My eyes narrowed as I looked at her. “Just…just stay away from me, Lorrie! Plum away from me! I don’t want to even look at you! I told you before, that Pa expects me to study when I’m at school and not getting into trouble. Girls!” My voice couldn’t hide the contempt I felt. I thought I’d had this whole girls thing settled months ago.
I turned and mounted my horse. When I looked back to where she’d been standing, she was gone. It was about time she got the hint! I was mad, I just couldn’t believe it that I was in trouble again, for nothing of my doing! I raced off for home.
When I pulled into the yard, I saw Pa walking from the barn as he buttoned up his shirt. He walked up to me as I stopped Blue Boy in the yard. “Son?” He raised his eyebrows at me.
“Hello, Pa.” I didn’t dismount my horse. I just sat there looking down at him.
“Well?” Pa looked up at the sky. “It’s just now noon. I didn’t expect you for another hour yet.”
“Well, there was some trouble, Pa,” I explained.
“And…was MY son the instigator of that trouble?” Pa asked then with a swift warning in his voice.
“Well…no sir. But I might as well have been.” I took the note from my pocket and handed it to Pa.
“Aren’t you getting a little old to be bringing these home?” Pa asked.
“I couldn’t agree with you more!” I declared. “In fact, I told Mr. Griswald the same thing.”
Pa scratched under his nose as he read the note. “And what did he say?”
“He agreed that someone of my AGE should know better.” I had hoped by emphasizing the word ‘age’ might have gotten Pa to remember that today was a special day. I mean, we don’t really go into big celebrations, but he’s always made a special wish to me before.
“Well, get down from there and go work on clearing rocks out of the East pasture, son. I took the wagon out there earlier today and then brought the team back here. Didn’t think they’d need to stand the whole afternoon while we were working.”
“We?” I cautiously asked.
“Well, it was we until you brought this note home. Do that until supper.”
“That’s all you’re gonna say?” I asked.
“I’ll have to think on the contents of this note for awhile, son.” Pa looked up at me and then shook his head. “Fill up a canteen, then get going.”
I heard the finality in Pa’s voice. My mouth hung open as I stared at Pa’s retreating figure as he walked into the house. I scratched my head. He hadn’t even given me a chance to explain. “Pa?” Pa stopped and turned around. “While you think on it, remember that I had NOTHING to do with this. I’m innocent.”
Pa nodded. “I’ll take that under advisement son.”
Again, I was being punished for something I hadn’t done! Just wait until I saw that Lorrie again! Why, even my own father sent me off for punishment without even getting an explanation. I bent down and picked up a stone and threw it as if I was skipping it across the water. As it skipped across the dirt I dreamed… Honestly, I wished I knew exactly what the contents of that note said!
I had no choice but to go out to the East Pasture and do Pa’s bidding.
Let me tell you something about the East Pasture. We didn’t use it for grazing much, and we didn’t usually do anything with the area, but it was right next to the road and sometimes Pa would use it when he needed to isolate one of the cattle. Sometimes, I would even go through the gate and cut across the pasture to get home…if I had a mind to get home fast.
Now let me tell you, working in the East pasture was hard labor, the kind that the chain gangs worked on. I slowly rode Blue Boy, knowing I had to do my father’s bidding, but he didn’t tell me to hurry up about it. While I rode, I daydreamed that each rock was Laurrie and I could just… I stopped thinking those thoughts as I got closer to the area I had been sent to, I heard voices. I saw wagons lined up on the road. I smelled food. And then I saw…
I stopped Blue Boy as they all came into sight. “What…” I started. I gently tapped my heels on Blue Boy’s flank and he started toward the crowd. Everyone turned and smiled at me. I slowly dismounted Blue Boy. Pa was there. He walked over and took Blue Boy’s reins. “Well…I must say you took your time in getting here, son.”
I looked from one side to the other. Tables had been set up and piled with all sorts of food. A punch bowel was filled already. Every family in North Fork seemed to be there. I saw Dr. Burrage, Nils, Micah, and many of the other men there. Cutting one of the baked chickens was Lou Mallory. Even the kids from school were there. Mr. Griswald stood in the middle of the crowd with a smile on his face. “Well, Pa…” I stammered. “Uh…when I’m being sent off to be punished, I don’t tend to be in a hurry.”
I slowly made my way forward. “Pa…what’s…what’s going on here?” I asked.
Just then, Lou put a hand to her hip and walked toward me. “Now, that’s a mighty fine how do you do!” She declared. “Mark McCain, I oughta turn you over your father’s knee for a question like that!”
“Well, I…” I started.
Miss Lou turned around. She raised her hand, then slowly began lowering it. “Happy 15th birthday!” Then everyone cheered.
“Well, what…” I started. Slowly, the realization began to hit me. “Pa…you …” I started toward him. Pa held up his hands and began backing away. “Now son, don’t get too riled! I just wanted to surprise you!”
“Surprise me? So you knew it was my birthday all along?” I asked. Pa nodded. “And the note Mr. Griswald sent home was…” I started.
Pa nodded. “A fake. The note said they were on their way.”
“And Lorrie was…” I started.
“All part of the plan, son.” Pa grinned at me.
I suddenly looked around for Lorrie, but I didn’t see her anywhere. “Where is she?”
Mrs. Trent stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Mark. She didn’t feel well.”
“Well, she was fine this…” I stopped then. My eyes grew wide. I suddenly realized how I had talked to her. I hurried up to Mrs. Trent. I took hold of her arm and pulled her to the side. “Was she…by any chance…crying?”
Lorrie’s mother nodded. “I know she acts all rough and tough, Mark. But she’s actually sensitive. Oh, I know she can be bossy, and God knows I’ve warned her…she adores you, Mark. And I think that when you spoke to her harshly today…well…”
“She told you?” Mrs. Trent nodded. “Where is she?” I asked.
Mrs. Trent smiled. “I believe she’s in our barn. She wouldn’t come out.”
“Alright.” I nodded. “I’ll go talk to her.” I hurried back to Pa and told him what I needed to do. “Please, let everyone start eating. I won’t enjoy my party if I leave things like t his…even if it IS Lorrie.”
Pa raised an eyebrow. “You know son, it’s funny how you can make me proud of you and want to scold you all in the same sentence!”
I smiled. “It’s my irresistible charm, Pa.” Pa handed me the Blue Boy’s reins. I jumped on the horse.
“Mark, just where…” Miss Lou started. Pa nodded for me to get going – he’d contend with Lou.
I raced off toward the Trent ranch. I tied my horse to the railing outside the barn and slowly opened the door. “Lorrie?” I called. I heard sniffing. “Lorrie?” But I still got no answer. I saw pieces of hay falling from the hayloft. I took off my hat and lay it on a nearby table. I put my fists on my hips. “Alright, come on down so we can talk.” I waited. “Hiding in the hayloft is the oldest trick in the book! I’ve visited the McCain hayloft more times than I care to admit.” There was still silence. “Lorrie, don’t make me come up there! Alright, I’m coming up after you!”
“No, wait…” I heard Lorrie speak with a sniff. “I’ll come down.” She slowly made her way down the steps of the ladder. Her eyes were dry, but the red circles around her eyes gave it away. “Now, what do you want?” She crossed her arms in front of her.
“Well…You see, there’s a party and you were missing. I…” I sighed and hit my hand against my thigh really hard. “Oh, Heavens to Betsy, Lorrie!” I declared suddenly. “I came to apologize…I…I…” She gave me a look that told me I wasn’t going to get off easy. “Well…I really thought you had done a hum-dinger on me, you see. Mr. Griswald really played his act out…and my Pa, well, I just thought Pa had forgotten what today was and then you went and tossed that note! I just thought that…” I sighed and shook my head. I looked down at my boots. “I know we’re friends and all and…I never should have spoken to you like I did.” I lifted my head back to look at her. “I…I aplogize.”
Lorrie narrowed her eyes at me. “I hope you didn’t think I was up in the hayloft crying over you!”
I hid a grin with my fist. I quickly forced a frown on my face. “Well, of course not! I just figured you were mad and I wanted to come and tell you I was sorry for what I said. It’s my fifteenth birthday, Lorrie. I just didn’t want to have any hard feelings between us.”
Lorrie allowed her eyes to soften. She turned her back to me and walked away a bit. “Oh, I guess I’ve deserved this for a long time, Mark. We’ve always been friends and all and…well…you know I like you.”
“I know.” I slowly walked up behind her.
“And, well…” Lorrie sniffed. “I should have written something a bit less threatening on that note like…oh…’Let’s go hunting for arrow heads after school” or something, but I guess I really got into the surprise to and thought I was playing a good joke on you.” Lorrie didn’t turn as she said, “I’m…sorry.”
I laid a hand on her shoulder as I spoke. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, Lorrie. Even if you had written that note for real I should have taken it like a man.” I shrugged. “After all, you’re a pest, but a friendly pest!”
I heard a chuckle come for Lorrie. She laughed as she turned around. I saw a tear laying on her cheek. I laughed with her. “Friends?” I held out my hand.
She took it and we shook hands. “Friends!”
“Okay, now how about a race to the party?” I asked.
“You know I can beat ya!” Lorrie declared.
“In a pig’s eye!” I answered back.
“Oh yeah?” She put a hand on her hip. “I bet you a day of hunting for arrowheads you can’t beat me!”
“What do I get if I win?” I asked then.
“Well…” Lorrie thought on it. “I’ll stop teasing you for a whole week!” Lorrie declared.
“A whole week, huh?” I thought on that. “Alright, you’re on!”
We got our horses lined up beside each other. Then the race was off. We raced the animals as fast as we could. We were just a short distance from where all the wagons were lined up, when Blue Boy suddenly stopped and reared back. Blue Boy’s shenanigans surprised me so much that I wasn’t prepared andI fell off and fell flat on my, well, I think you know where. . “Hey, what’s the big idea?” I shouted to Blue Boy as he trotted off to stand by Razor. I slapped my hat on my pants after I got up off the ground. I hurried up to him and grabbed his reins. “Do you realize you just cost me a whole Saturday of hunting for arrowheads?”
Lorrie turned her horse around. “Ha! The pleasure will be all yours!” she said. “And uh…since you lost, I don’t have to stop teasing you!”
By this time, Pa and some of the others were up beside me. “You alright, son?” Pa asked. I could hear the concern in his voice. It wasn’t that long ago that Pa had seen me take another tumble off Blue Boy. I gave an involuntary shiver as I remembered back to that day.
“I think so,” I answered as I slapped my hat on my pants. “Nothin’ hurt but my pride I reckon!” Pa wasn’t quite ready to trust me this time, like he had the last time. I felt his arm around my back and under arms and then both his hands were on my ribs. I could see the fear in his eyes.
“And don’t forget about Saturday, Mark!” Lorrie declared.
“Yeah…I” I rolled my eyes. Pa raised his eyebrows in question. “Oh…I made a…bet…with Lorrie.”
As we continued to walk back toward the tables, Pa relaxed his grip and eventually Pa chuckled. “Well, you know what I’ve always told you about betting, son…”
I held up a hand. “Don’t say it, Pa!” I said with a shake of my head. “You know how slow I am to learning some hard lessons.”
“Uh huh!” Pa pointed toward the crowd. “Now, how about moseying on up there and join your party, son!”
Pa laughed as he put his arm around my shoulder. We walked together up to the group. I smiled as I looked around. Pa and I had always had this closeness and I loved it. Most boys my age didn’t have such a relationship with their father, but when Pa put his arm around me or touched my arm…however he played that physical contact…it made me feel connected to my mother. I have a feeling that’s why he showed his affection so deeply – because he loved my mother, and nobody could ever replace her…not really…but when he touched me, I guess he thought it was like touching my mother. So many people always told Pa how much I reminded them of my mother.
I laughed as we all sat around eating. We had sharpshooting contest later. I came in second in the boys’ contest. My Pa, of course, came in first in the men’s contest. Then the boys and men got together. I came nowhere near winning, and for some reason that brought a big, victorious smile to my father’s face. Why, by looking at his face, one would think I had taken first prize…but then, maybe I had!
Many families were still there as the sun started to sink. Lou and some of the other women started gathering up the food while us “men” started breaking down the make-shift tables. There was merry singing as we cleaned up and packed everything up. I walked to Blue Boy and started to mount my horse. But then I paused. I turned and looked out over the pasture where we had spent hours together. Pa came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders as he waved goodbye to the last guest leaving.
Now it was just the two of us out here on the McCain land. “So, did you like your day?”
I smiled as my heart swelled. “It was perfect, Pa…so perfect.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure if you wanted to have a big party or…” I heard the smile in Pa’s voice. “Just the two of us.”
“Oh Pa,” I shook my head slowly as I once again scanned the land. I pointed to different spots as I spoke. “Nils and Micah were talking right there. I saw Micah look towards me a few times with a proud grin on his face. And over there…over there, Dr. Burrage talked about all the times he’d cared for me in his office from the anthrax…to the measles…to when I almost died because I was your son. His words made my heart swell, Pa.” I pointed to where the tables had been. “Then I saw Lou rushing around serving all my guests, keeping plates filled and kids in order. I saw Mr. Griswald over there telling stories of the East as kids sat around with great big smiles of interests on their faces. Pa, from the look on his face, I’d say he was quite happy with himself for finding a way not to waste a perfectly good school day!” I leaned against Pa as his hands squeezed my shoulder. “All the people I knew and loved were here…here on our ranch…on my fifteenth birthday with the exception of a few…”
“Son, you talk like your writing it in a book,” Pa stated.
“I am.” I pointed to my temple. “It’s all in here. And when I’m standing in this spot with my hands on my son’s shoulders, I’ll tell him all about this day. And I’ll remember it as if it were yesterday.” I lifted my head up to look at Pa. He smiled down at me. “And I’ll tell him that I had the most wonderful father in the world.”
“Oh.” Pa smiled with pride as his eyes became moist. “Well, I think you’ll be the most wonderful father in the world…someday. I’m so proud of the man you’ve become, Mark.”
We took our horses by the reins and started walking back toward the ranch. We weren’t ready for this feeling to end so Pa kept his arm around my shoulders and I kept mine around his waist. “Scarey, huh?” I asked.
“What?” Pa asked softly, close to my ear.
“My growing up. My not being your little boy anymore. Each year I become less a boy and more a man.”
“And every year I become prouder of the man you are becoming, son. In another year you’ll probably be out of school with your certificate. I’m so very proud, Mark.” Pa squeezed his arm around my shoulders. “But you’re still my kid.” Pa cleared his throat as we walked in silence. “So, who was missing today?”
“Ma for one, Pa. I know it’s hard for you…I mean, I know it’s my birthday, but I don’t remember that day…the very first one. I don’t have a whole lot of memories of Ma on my birthday…but you do.” I stopped and turned to look at him.
Pa touched my chin as he smiled sadly. “I know. It is hard. I’m happy to see you growing, yet my heart aches at the memories of your Ma not being here.” We started walking again. “Who else is missing?”
I smiled. “Milly,” I answered. “Milly made my last birthday so special.” I held up my hand as Pa opened his mouth to speak. “Oh, I know that Miss Lou did a fine job, and I’ve thanked her for it…but Milly…Oh Pa, you know she was special. I really wish…”
Pa nodded. “I know, son. Actually, there is one more letter for you. It’s at home.”
“For me?” I asked as I looked up at Pa.
Pa nodded. “Well…there were two. One’s for you.”
“And uh…the other?” Pa looked down at me and raised his eyebrow. “What about Miss Lou?”
“Lou and I are just friends, son. She knows how I feel about Milly. Lou and I…well…we enjoy each other’s company. That’s all.” Pa sighed and rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortable. “Anyway, I…”
I let him off the hook. I changed the subject. “Pa?” Pa turned and looked at me. “There was…one more person missing.”
I hesitated, and averted my eyes from him. I wasn’t sure if Pa would appreciate me mentioning it. Pa grabbed the back of my neck and stopped me. “Whoa there, Cowboy.” I could see our ranch house from here. The sun was sinking fast, casting eerie shadows all around us. Pa turned me around and put his hands on my shoulders. He looked into my eyes. “Son…what your grandfather did was very, very painful for me. I don’t hate him…not anymore. I can’t forgive him just yet, but that doesn’t mean I want to stand in the way of your happiness. If you want a relationship with your grandfather, I want you to have that.” Pa lowered his head. “I had my grandfather until I was fifteen. I still remember the day he died…” Pa shook his head at the memory. “So, I happen to know how important that is. I know you two have been writing back and forth…and I know that you have been hiding your growing relationship from me, but you don’t have to.” Pa raised his eyebrows and smile. “I’m a big boy. I can accept your decision..”
“Hey, he is your mother’s father. I can’t hate him or hold a big grudge against him. I have to thank him for the gifts he gave me…first your mother…and second…” Pa rested a hand on my cheek. “You.”
“Yes son?” Pa asked quietly.
“I love these talks and all, but can we stop all this mushy stuff? I think there’s been enough for one day!” I declared with a smile.
“You know something, son?” I raised my eyebrows and waited for Pa to go on. “You are still a kid!” He planted a smack on my back side. “Now, go bed down the stock, BOY!”
As I hurried on down the hill with Blue Boy behind me, I could hear Pa’s laughter ring out across the land. It was a sound that echoes even still today…after all these years.
Lorrie didn’t forget our date for Saturday! I reckon I tried to forget it. I was actually in the barn milking the cow when the barn door opened and Lorrie walked in. “Your Pa said you’d be out here,” she explained.
“Oh. Well, what are you doing out here?” I asked as I dumped the milk in the bucket and put it in the cooler.
I started gathering the eggs from my chicken nests I’d started in the barn. “Well…if you remember, we had an agreement to hunt for arrow heads.”
I groaned. “You mean that’s today?”
“Yes, I mean today, Mark McCain!” Lorrie answered. “I already talked to your Pa and he said it was perfectly fine with him! In fact, he even told me I could join you for supper in town this afternoon! I just have to swing by and check with my folks.”
I shook my head from side to side. “What’s the matter, Mark McCain?”
“Oh…uh…” I set the basket down and headed for the door. “Would you work on gathering the eggs for me? You know…the sooner I get my chores done, the sooner…” I swept my hand across. “Well…I’ll be right back!”
I closed the door to the barn and raced back to the house. Pa was clearing away the breakfast dishes. “Pa!” I raced inside. “Don’t we have to…uh…go check the cattle today?” I asked.
“No, I can handle that, son. You just go enjoy your day.” Pa walked into the kitchen.
I raced after him. “Yeah, but…I mean, there’s lots of chores to do round here! I…”
“Nothing that can’t wait, son.” Pa patted me on the shoulder. “You deserve a day off every now and then. You just go enjoy yourself!”
Pa walked back to the table. I followed him in there. “Yeah, but Pa, there’s so much to do! I wouldn’t feel right to abandon you! I…”
Pa stopped what he was doing and bolted upright. “Huh?” He turned and stared at me. “You? This is coming from MY son? The boy that left me to most of the chores LAST Sunday so he could go fishing with his friends? The BOY who begged off three Saturdays ago so he could go hunting, even though we had several places in the fence to mend, and…might I add…several strays to round up…”
“Okay, okay, Pa…I get your point…” I moaned. “But Pa, riding around with Lorrie all day?”
“Well son, maybe next time you should stop…and uh…think before you make a bet with someone.” He shook a finger at me. “Let that be punishment to you!”
“Punishment? Pa, this is cruel and unusual punishment!” I proclaimed.
Pa patted my shoulder in mock sympathy. “Son, you have to accept the consequences that go with your actions. Go and have lots of fun today.”
“Yeah…” I groaned. I started for the door then turned around. “But knowing her, she’ll get me trapped in some tree with a bear or swimming up some river after she pushes me in!”
Pa laughed as he shook his head. “Well son, the bears are out of season and the river’s awful cold this time of year!”
“Yeah…well…” I put my hands on my hips. “Mark my words, Pa, something’s gonna happen before this day is over! Mark my words!”
“Alright.” Pa nodded. “When you don’t show up for supper, I’ll send out the posse for ya.” Pa turned toward the kitchen again. “Have a good day, son!” I couldn’t believe the audacity, Pa was laughing!
“Yeah,” I said again. I opened the door. “But did you have to invite her for supper?”
“Mark?” Pa warned.
“Alright, Pa…Alright! I’m going!” I closed the door before the dishtowel hit me in the face.
We spent most of the morning going from place to place. Finally, we arrived at Buffalo Canyon. We stopped our horses at the edge as we looked out across the land. “I wonder why they call it Buffalo Canyon,” Lorrie wondered out loud.
“Because this whole place used to be filled with buffalo…as far as the eye could see!” I answered as I swept my hand across the land for good measure.
“Really Mark?” Lorrie asked excitedly.
I smiled. “No…I have no idea!”
“Oh, Mark McCain…You’r a…a…” Lorried fumed.
“Uh…uh…uh…” I shook a finger at her. “Now don’t you be go calling me names!”
“I’d like to know where you got your wit!” Lorrie exclaimed as she slid off her horse.
I laughed as I followed her to a nearby tree. “I reckon I got that from my Pa,” I answered.
“Well then….I sure do feel sorry for your Ma!” Lorrie declared.
I placed my hands on my hips as I heard her sharp intake of breath and she put her hand to her mouth. She started to apologize. I knew it was an innocent slip of the tongue. “I’ll have you know, Miss Lorrie, that my mother laughed all the time! She loved my Pa’s wit…his charm!”
“Well…let’s go looking for relics, Mark.” I nodded and sat under the tree near the horses. Lorrie turned and stared at me. “Ya comin’, Mark?”
I put the hat over my face and leaned my head back against the tree. “I’ll just nap here,” I mumbled.
“We came to look for arrow heads!” Lorrie declared.
I suddenly felt something hit me. “Yow!” I shouted as I sat up straight, knocking my hat to the ground. “Hey, what’s the big idea!”
“You came to help me look for arrow heads, remember?” Lorrie reminded me.
“I remember!” I declared. “I’ll keep an eye out for any under this tree.” But that wasn’t good enough. I groaned as stood to my feet. “Okay, okay…let’s go!”
We searched for an hour but found nothing. Finally, Lorrie slapped the empty collection bag against her thigh and said, “Well, it looks like we’re going to Redbud Canyon after all!”
“Redbud…” I started. “Oh Lorrie, it’s so far away! And if we get all muddy before we get to town, Pa will be serving my head on a platter for supper tonight!”
Lorrie turned and stared at me. Then she rolled her eyes. “Oh Mark, you say the strangest things!” She declared. “Sides, this is my prize for winning the bet!”
“The bet said we’d go looking for arrow heads! It did NOT include having my head chopped off!” I argued. But Lorrie jumped on her horse and started forward. “Women!” I groaned as I mounted Blue Boy. “I don’t understand why I ever got myself into such a fix…when am I ever gonna learn that women are nothing but trouble!” I continued mumbling under my breath as I caught up to Lorrie. “I must be crazy!”
“Wanta race?” Lorrie asked.
“Are you kidding me? After the last time?”
“Just to Ol’ Tony’s property!” Lorrie said. She leaned forward on her horse. “Ready?”
I rolled my eyes. “I guess so.” Under my breath, I added…”Like I HAVE a choice!”
And the race was off! I cringed as I realized I was going to have to go through a big mud puddle. That would get the horses all dirty, and I knew Pa would do some hollering over that! But I wasn’t going to let her beat me a second time, so it was off through the mud puddle we went!
But suddenly, Blue Boy reared. I was able to stay in the saddle this time, and this time, Lorrie came back to check on me without winning the race. “Whew!” I declared as I looked back at the mud puddle I’d barely missed. “That was close.” Then I looked down at Blue Boy. “So, what’s the big idea, huh? Now let me tell you something, mister…the next time you do that, I won’t give you any sugar cubes for a whole week, ya hear? You ornery ol’ horse!”
“Talking to your horse now?” Lorrie asked sarcastically. I nodded. “Well, just long as the horse don’t answer back!”
I’d had enough of her! I lifted my head and stuck my tongue out at her. I could just hear Pa now…”That’s it, boy! I’m going for the soap!” Even at 15, I don’t expect Pa would think twice before giving my mouth a good washing, but she was getting me pretty dag gum riled!
Lorrie simply rolled her eyes. “That is so immature!” she griped.
“Well it’s pretty immature of my horse to try and rear me everytime I race you too!” I declared. “Maybe I oughta just wash HIS mouth out with soap!” I lowered my head to Blue Boy’s ear. “You used to be my friend…”
“Well, let’s get going!”
Lorrie started to race off again and I yelled out to her, “Hey, the horses are quite lathered, why don’t we give them a breather and just walk ‘em.”
We slowly rode toward Ol’ Tony’s place. Suddenly, Lorrie shouted, “Hey, I’ll race ya!” Then she took off.
“Hey, your cheating!” I shouted as I raced after her. The race was on again. We didn’t go through anymore mud puddles, but we did do some jumping. Blue Boy was smooth! This time, I beat her! “Ha, so you beat me. Do you have to be so smug?”
Girls! I wanted to knock her off that saddle, but I knew better. Even though she didn’t act like a girl or talk like a girl, she was still a girl. And even if she deserved to be knocked off her high horse, Pa would kick me in the britches if I did anything like that to a…I hesitate to say the word…lady! “I didn’t say a word,” I simply answered with a smile. Boy, but she was a piece of work! She wins and she practically does a victory dance right in front of me. The first time I win, she gets all snotty with me!
“Well, you were thinking it.” I couldn’t help but smile at her. She was indeed an interesting lady! “How much further is it?” she asked then. I told her it was just over the hill. But when we got up to the trail there was a fence there. I was surprised to see that – I had been given permission to cross it. Mr. Stanick was there with wire cutters. I asked him when Ol’ Tony had fenced off the trail – he didn’t know when, but he knew he was going to take care of the problem right now.
I then watched as he cut the fence down. Suddenly, a shot rang out. It spooked our horses and sent them forward across where the fence had been. We had to work hard to calm our horses, but we were finally able to stop them.
Mr. Stenick jumped on his horse and raced off. Suddenly, Lorrie cried, “Mark!” I turned inside to see Ol’ Tony coming toward us. He had a shotgun in his hands and a mean look on his face. It reminded me of another time I’d seen him like that. I didn’t like the look any better then. He asked me if we didn’t know any better than to cross a man’s land. I reminded him that Pa had asked him once.
I remembered back to that day, I was twelve years old. Pa had made me stay in bed for several days after my latest bout with sickness…this time it had been Typhoid Fever. Pa watched me with a careful eye as he slowly allowed me to do more and more
Then one day…I think it was a Saturday…Pa allowed me up and told me I could play outside. I had walked to the barn to slip Blue Boy a sugar cube when Pa wasn’t watching. I ached and longed to ride him! He whinnied out in a way that sounded like he was begging and pleading with me to please ride him. He was missing me just as much as I was missing him. “Don’t worry, Blue Boy. I’ll talk to Pa.”
I ran back to the house. Pa put a hand on my shoulder to stop me. “I told you to take it easy, boy! What are you running for?”
“Oh…I…I’m sorry, Pa…” I swallowed and licked my lips. “I….I….Pa, may I please? Pleas can I Pa? Blue Boy wants it just as much as I do! Oh Pa, it would mean so much to the both of us!”
Pa laid a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. He narrowed his eyes and gave me a look that told me he knew just what I was up to. “Can you what, son?”
“Take Blue Boy for a ride.” I saw Pa’s mouth pop open. “Oh Pa, it would mean so much to him! Oh Pa…I want it more than anything!”
As I spoke, I saw Pa’s heart melt. He kept his hand on my shoulder as he bent down in front of me. “Mark, you are the only important thing I have left in this world. You are a part of your mother and if I lost you…” Pa’s eyes again filled with tears. “You gave me quite a scare in there, boy!”
“I know.” I hung my head. “I know it was my fault, and I apologize.” Then I lifted my head. “But I don’t feel a bit tired! Honest I don’t, Pa! Oh, please, Pa! PLEASE!”
Pa lifted an eyebrow and looked into my eyes. Inside his eyes, I could tell that he was fighting a battle inside himself. “Mark…” Pa sighed as he put his hand around the back of my neck. “Son, I…” Again he stopped. “I want honesty here. How do you really feel?”
I averted my eyes to answer. “Uh uh!”
I turned back to face Pa. “Well, I…may not be as strong as ya like, but I’ll just be on Blue Boy, Pa, honest!” Pa wasn’t one that gave in to begging and pleading often, but today was different. I hugged him. “Oh Pa, please! Oh, please Pa!”
Pa pushed me out of the embrace and lifted his eyes at me. “You have your father’s stubbornness and determination, but your mother’s charm!” Pa smiled. “Alright. But we’ll ride together. I don’t know that I trust you not to run the legs off your horse.”
It felt good to be outside, riding Blue Boy and riding with my Pa next to me, even though he didn’t let us go any faster than a jog trot. We followed the trail and soon came to Old Tony’s property. We stopped at the trail. Pa read the “No Trespassing” sign. “Wait, son,” Pa said as he dismounted his horse.
“Pa, there’s a canyon on the other side of that trail! Oh, can we…” My voice suddenly died.
Pa turned and looked at me. His face held a very stern expression. “Wait here, son.” Pa walked up to Old Tony and they chatted. I watched curiously as they shook hands. Pa talked for a long time. I was getting tired of simply sitting there, so cautiously, I climbed out of the saddle. Pa turned and saw me standing beside Blue Boy. He held out his arm and winked at me. I hurried toward him. “He’s been sick for quite some time. Got over Typhoid fever.”
Suddenly, Old Tony’s eyes clouded up. I looked up at Pa who just shook his head sofly. I knew he was telling me to stay silent. Old Tony turned away as he covered his face with his hand. Just as quickly, however, he turned back. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m glad to hear your boy lived.”
I wondered on the way he said it. It almost sounded like…I looked up at Pa again. Pa put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Well, my son’s been cooped up in the house for weeks and begged to go for a ride. I was wondering if…the trail. Would it be okay if we used the trail when we needed it.”
Old Tony walked over to my horse. He patted him. Tony reached into his pocket and took out a sugar cube and held it to Blue Boy’s muzzle. “Yes, you like those, huh?”
I smiled and raised my head up to Pa. He raised an eyebrow and frowned at me. “I’m afraid my boy slips him too many throughout the day,” Pa stated as he put both hands on my shoulders.
“Pa yells about it too!” I declared. “But Blue Boy likes them!”
Tony patted Blue Boy again. I saw that far-away look in his eyes. “I have a horse in that barn over there. The horse’s name is “Quick Sand.” A very special boy gave him that name a long time ago.” Tony clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing back and fourth. “That boy rescued him from the swamp a long time ago. He’s had the name ever since.”
“What’s the boy’s name?” I asked suddenly. Pa clamped a hand over my mouth. Old Tony suddenly looked at me. His eyes narrowed and he no longer seemed as friendly.
“None of your business!” he shouted. He bolted toward me and Pa put a protective arm around me. “Now…get out of here! You can use the trail, but just leave me alone!”
Pa motioned me to mount my horse. I watched as Old Tony climbed the steps to his house and slammed the door. “Pa?”
Pa had a sorrowful look on his face. “Well, I’m not sure, son…I mean, there’s rumors that…” Pa turned and looked at me. I saw tears again form in his eyes as he spoke. “His wife died in Sycamore Canyon while riding a horse one day. A few months later…his son…Thadeous…he died from…” Pa closed his eyes and whispered the word. “Typhoid.”
My attention was brought back to the present when I heard Old Tony talking, chastising us about our treatment of the horses, in how sweaty and lathered they were. But as I listened to him speak, I saw a sadness in his eyes. I heard the tears in his voice.
Lorrie and I were invited…no…we were more like forced inside for lunch. His house looked so lonesome. It seemed to cry out for attention. But in the corner I saw a guitar. It was covered in dust as if it hadn’t been touched in years. Tony continued griping about songs now-a-days. He mentioned “Greensleeves.” I smiled. I couldn’t help myself as I began strumming on the guitar.
As I finished the song, I saw a sadness in his eyes…it was a deep sadness. I longed to stay and talk with him, but the sadness seemed so unreachable…so deep inside him.
Suddenly, Tony told us we could look for flint stones in Sycamore Canyon. He was permitting us to travel on his property. I hesitated to leave, but I did his bidding. As Lorrie and I rode away from the land, Lorrie asked me about him. “What makes him so mean?” she asked.
“Sadness,” I answered. “A deep, dark, unbreakable sadness.”
“You think he’s had it for a long time?” Lorrie asked me then.
I nodded as we rode over the hill. “A very long time.” I looked at her. “He lost everything…his wife…his son…I see him and I think…” I lowered my head and bit my lip.
“You think what?” Lorrie asked in a soft, sensitive voice.
I stopped my horse. “Well, it’s been nearly nine years now since my mother died from small pox. When I see Tony, I see what my father could have become if he had lost me as well.”
“Your Pa’s strong, Mark!” Lorrie declared.
“He’s very strong!” I stated. “Because of me.” I turned and looked at Lorrie. “You…You just don’t know what it’s like. I mean, my Pa…He lives for me! Remember when I got typhoid fever?” Lorrie nodded. “Well…I was so very, very sick. I almost died. Lorrie, if I had died, my Pa could very well have become that angry man we were just visiting.”
We started riding again. Lorrie suddenly stopped and turned to me. “Mark?” I looked toward her. “I don’t think he’s unbreakable. I think he just needs somebody to love him.”
Her words got to me. I remembered the look of peace that came over his face…ever so briefly…while ago as I sung that song. I wondered then. What if…”Is this Sycamore Canyon, Mark?” Lorrie suddenly broke into my thoughts.
I blinked. “Huh?” I looked around. “Oh, yes! This is it!”
We tied the horses to graze nearby and loosened the cinches to the saddles so they could rest. Then we started looking around for flint stones. But suddenly, I got to remembering back to that day…that Saturday Pa and me rode into here together.
“Let’s get off right here and hobble the horses, son. I want you to rest.” Pa’s voice sounded worried as he looked over at me. I felt a little tired, but I didn’t want to be fussed over so!
“I’m okay, Pa! We can ride!” I insisted.
Pa reached up and pulled me off the saddle. He pointed to a tree. “Sit now!” He ordered as he gave my back side a hard swat. I walked over to the tree and sat down as I watched Pa remove the saddles and hobble the horses. Pa took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead as he slowly walked over to me. That’s when I noticed how different he looked.
Pa sighed as he sat down next to me. He pulled his knees up to his chest as he fumbled with his hat in his hands. “Pa?” Pa turned his head to look at me. “Why do you look so…different?”
“What do you mean, son?” Pa asked.
“Well…I don’t know…exactly. Your forehead has lines and your eyes…they have lines at the edges. You just look so…” I stopped as I saw a dark expression cross Pa’s face.
Pa put his hat down on the grass and lifted me from where I was sitting. He sat me firmly on his lap and lifted my face to stare into his eyes. “Son, someday you will become a father and you’ll understand this all better. When one of your children gets sick, you feel like you’re dying inside. You weren’t the only one in that room dying. So was I…in a different way.”
“Why?” I asked then.
My father had so much wisdom. I always loved listening to him. I drank in every word that came out of his mouth. “Because, son…” Pa opened his eyes wide as he stared into mine. “I love you.” Pa hugged me to him then. His arms enveloped me like a soft, warm blanket on a cold night. I suddenly felt very warm and safe all over. “I love you so much, son. If I lost you…I would…” He didn’t finish the sentence.
“Pa?” I questioned as he continued to keep me embraced in his strong arms.
I knew he was reluctant to let go. But finally, his strong embrace weakened. He pushed me away from his chest and once again looked into my eyes. “Son, before you got sick…you were struggling with memories of your mother. I got so angry because…well…I struggle with those same memories.” I gasped and lifted my eyebrows as I continued staring into his face. “Mmm Hmm. You see son, sometimes…time can be so very cruel.” Pa’s arms slid back around me and he pulled my head to his chest. “Oh, I still remember so many things, but the little things…How she smelled in the morning…The smile she wore every time she looked at you…The way she always… I thought I had forgotten those things, but now that I think on it, I remember them.”
“I remember her voice,” I whispered. “She used to sing to me all the time.”
I didn’t hear it often, but suddenly, Pa began singing very softly. His words were etched into my heart:
Alas, my love you do me wrong
To cast me off so discourteously
When I have loved you so long
Delighting in your company
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my lady greensleeves
As Pa finished the last word, he suddenly began weeping. I lifted my head and saw the tears. I put my hands on his cheeks. “Oh Pa, don’t cry!” I cried out. “Oh Pa, Please! Please don’t cry!”
Pa kissed my forehead as he wiped at his tears. “I’m sorry…I just….miss her so much and….” Pa swallowed hard as he rested his hand on my cheek. “I got to thinking about you, my precious son…If I had lost you…I couldn’t…I couldn’t…”
Nothing more was said, but I suddenly saw it in his eyes. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that Ma knew my father and his heart. She knew that I had to go back to him to save him from despair. When she said Pa needed me, it was for this reason more than anything else – because he needed my love as much as he needed to love me. “Oh Pa, I’ll never leave you again!” I declared as I hugged him really tight.
“Oh, you’ll leave me, but it will be to get married and start a family of your own. I want that. That’s right and good. I pray that you find a woman to love like I had…only, I pray, son, that you get to keep that precious gift from heaven longer then I was able to.”
“You really loved her, didn’t you Pa?” I looked up at him. Pa’s eyes filled up with tears again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
Pa sighed as he rested his head on top of mine. I could hear his heart beating faster as I rested my head against his strong chest. “You didn’t. I just still have…so much love in my heart for your mother. Yes, son. I loved her very much. But…we weren’t just in love…we were friends – best friends.”
“Really?” I asked without moving.
“Really. There was nothing I couldn’t tell her. She loved me for who I was. She accepted my faults and we talked. Hm…There were days when we would talk for hours. We wouldn’t even go to sleep until early in the morning because we just talked about everything. I would listen to her softly give me advice and she would listen to mine. I’ll never meet another woman as wonderful as your mother.”
Nothing more had to be said. We just sat under that tree and enjoyed being together. Finally, I said, “I loved her too, Pa…” As I slowly drifted off to sleep.
“Mark?” Lorrie’s voice suddenly brought me back to the present. Sometime during my remembering back, I had found myself sitting under that same tree remembering back…way back…to that time. In this moment, I missed it. My heart longed to be that twelve year old boy sitting in my father’s arms listening to his soft voice as he remembered my mother. But Lorrie was trying desperately to break the spell.
She wondered what I was talking about. My thoughts were private…so private…nobody knew about that Saturday – it was one of those private moments Pa and I shared – just between the two of us, and that’s how we both wanted it to stay. So instead, I answered…” "About Old Tony and how lonesome he must really be."
Lorrie was thinking about Old Tony too. "I wonder what his wife was like.” I didn’t respond. I was busy trying to remember back.
"Mark?” Apparently, Lorrie wasn’t going to leave me alone. I put my hat back on top of my head. “Do you ever wonder what your wife will be like...I mean when you get married?"
"I suppose so.”
"Well...what would she be like?" Lorrie wondered.
What I wanted to say was, “Not like you!” But that would have been cruel and I probably would have gotten a punch in the gut. So instead, I tried to make a joke of it. "Real pretty and a good cook," I teased.
"Oh Mark...can't you ever be serious?" she scolded him. "Do you think that is all there is to marriage?"
"No...not really! There's a lot more.”
"Well...Pa and I was talkin' about it once. He was talking about my mother. I'll never forget a thing he said. He said that they were more than just in love...they were friends.”
"I don't think I understand," said Lorrie.
"Well he meant that she was someone he could talk to....about his troubles and about anything."
"Like us Mark?" Lorrie suddenly asked with a big smile on her face.
I laughed. “Sure I guess...we're best friends and we can talk..." I suddenly realized where this talk was going. I stopped suddenly. There was NO way! “Uh…” I sat up straight. “You better go look for those arrowheads if you plan on getting any. And don’t go off too far and get yourself lost!”
That made Lorrie mad. She suddenly got to her knees and planted her hands on her hips. "Mark McCain...will you stop treating me like a little girl?"
I couldn’t help but wonder how she wanted me to treat her then…I did’t want to think on it. I just put my hat back over my face and went back to my thoughts. I soon found myself asleep, dreaming of that day.
I don’t know how long I had slept, but I woke up, still in my father’s arms. I moved my head up and saw my Pa’s smiling face as he peered down at me. He looked so peaceful. I knew we needed this time alone…both of us. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m not.” Pa brushed a hand against my cheek. “You’ve done my heart good today, son. You see, I’m slowly losing my little boy, but today I was able to have a little bit of him back.” I turned in his lap as Pa shifted uncomfortably. “The lines on your face…they’re going away, Pa.”
Pa smiled. “Those were worry lines, Mark. I was so worried. But today, you took them away. You’re going to be okay. You are going to grow up, get married and have lots of kids of your own to fret over and love…Like I love you.”
I stood up and allowed Pa to stand. I heard the groan as he got to his feet. “I’m sorry, Pa!” Pa turned to me then. “How long did I sleep?”
Pa got down on one knee in front of me. He looked me straight in the eye. “You were asleep for a whole hour, son. And for the whole hour, I did nothing but look at you sleep. Your mother and I used to watch you sleep when you were a baby. It’s so beautiful…”
“Oh Pa!” I rolled my eyes. “That’s mushy stuff! Men don’t talk like that!”
“Oh?” Pa turned and I climbed onto his back, wrapping my arms around his neck and my legs around his middle. He started back toward the horses. “I’m the Rifleman, and I think like that.”
“Yeah but…men are supposed to be tough and stuff…not kissing their kids and being like this.” I declared.
“Mark,” Pa put me on the saddle. “You remember the day we watched that mother bear with her cubs?” I nodded. “A bear’s about as rough and tough as they get, yet she was so gentle and loving with her…”
“Yeah, but she’s a mother!” I declared as I looked down at Pa.
Pa smiled. “The Bible mentions a great man – the son of God – who walked the lands. He could get angry at the deception in the temple and knock over tables one minute. But the next, he was calling the children to sit on his lap. He’d hug and kiss on them. I’m sure of it because that’s showing your love.” Pa smiled. “Son, I don’t know who told you Pa’s have to be rough and tough all the time, but that’s not me. At least…not with you unless I have to be…And not with your mother.”
I thought on that for a minute. “So…you’re more like a mother bear with her cubs…” I stated.
Pa laughed as he mounted his own horse. “I guess you could say that, son.”
“Pa, I’m sorry I kept you here so long.”
Pa leaned over and touched my shoulder then. “Well, I’m not, son! There’s no place I’d rather be!” He straightened back up in his saddle, but now we have to get home. We have fences to mend.” I knew he was talking about more than the fences in our ranch.
“That’s not all, Pa.” Pa turned and looked at me. “We got flowers to fix too.”
I could tell Pa knew I wasn’t just talking about the flowers around the porch.
I sat on Blue Boy for a moment, with my arm resting on the saddle horn. Guess Pa saw the look on my face because I heard him say, “Out with it.”
“Well, I just got to thinking, that maybe… I mean, we’ve got chores enough to do… We probably should get home quicker than it took us to get here. And I am well enough, aren’t I… Please Pa?” I asked with my best little boy charm.
Pa smiled and Razor bolted forward as he started for home. Blue Boy followed suit, being the obedient horse to Razor’s leadership. We raced for home…father and son side by side…together… It was then that I knew everything was going to be okay.
I smiled as I thought on all that now. I didn’t ever want the feeling to end, but it had to. I scooted my hat back on my head, suddenly aware of how late it was getting. I hadn’t seen Lorrie in quite some time. I knew Lorrie too well – she was being way too quiet!
I stood and started calling for her, but she was nowhere in sight. The more I called her with no answer, the more worried I became. I started hollering louder, begging her to answer me. Then suddenly…
“Mark! Mark!” Her scream sounded. I ordered her to keep hollering until I found her. “Mark! Mark!” She screamed again.
And then, my heart began beating faster as I realized where the shouts were coming from – the swamp! I ran as fast as my legs would allow. Frantically, I raced to the quicksand and there I saw her! Lorrie was up to her shoulders in quicksand. I couldn’t even think straight – I just rushed forward and fell down to my knees, begging her to grab my hand. I suddenly found myself in the same fix as her.
“Lorrie, stay still!” I screamed. “Just stay still!” But her cries were panicked. In a matter of moments, we would both disappear underneath the swamp, and no one…no one would EVER find us!
My mind flashed back to the day Pa and I sat under that tree together. I longed to be that little 12 year old boy in his arms again. I longed to see those worry lines back on his face. I suddenly…”Mark, I’m sinking!” Lorrie screamed frantically.
“Lorrie, stay still!” I demanded. “Stop moving!” But she was hysterical. I closed my eyes for only a moment. “God…please send Pa!”
I continued to tell Lorrie not to move. I held on to her the best I could, but she was slipping fast because she was panicked and moving around. “Dang it, Lorrie! If you’ll just stay still, you won’t sink!” I said angrily through clinched teeth.
“Son, if I ever lost you…” Pa’s words from that day echoed back in my head. The words were like one of those fancy machines I saw once where you crank the handle, it would record your voice. Then you crank it the other way to repeat. That’s how that conversation from three years ago echoed in my head. I could feel Pa’s arms envelope me. I could feel his lips as they touched my forehead ever so gently.
“Mark!” He was suddenly there! He had come! He had… “Pa!”
“Lorie, be still! Don’t move!” Pa demanded as he made his way out onto the edge with a rope.
“Pa, hurry up!” I screamed in panic as I felt myself suddenly sink deeper.
“Be still, kids!” Pa ordered as he slowly edged his way on the hard land with the rope.
“Pa, hurry!” I begged again. I needed to feel Pa’s strong arms around me!
“Don’t move!” Pa demanded again. I couldn’t exactly see what was going on. But suddenly, Pa’s arms grabbed me. “Hold on to Lorrie, son!” Pa demanded as he grabbed me and pulled us out.
Gratitude, praise, and thankfulness filled my heart. Pa’s strong arms were around me. He pushed Lorrie out of the way so he could put his arms around me. I leaned my head back against his chest. I suddenly felt like that twelve year old little boy again. “Pa, I sure am glad to see you!” I said as I looked up into my father’s eyes.
"Me too son,” Pa declared between breaths. “Me too."
He didn’t speak as he calmed down his breathing. With my head against his chest, I heard his heart pounding. “I guess I gave you quite a scare.” Pa just looked at me. He couldn’t say a word.
Lorrie stood up and began brushing at the mud on her clothes. But Pa didn’t move. His arms tightened around me. “I don’t even want to think about how many more seconds you had left!” Pa said as he closed his eyes. I watched as he suddenly pressed a hand against his forehead. “Thank you, God!”
“I was that close to…” Pa just shook his head. He was still trying to get his bearing about himself. Finally, he lifted me from his backwards embrace and helped me stand. I was covered in mud. “Ewww!” I declared.
“We’ll get them cleaned up at the house!” Old Tony sounded grumpy when he spoke.
“Yeah.” I watched as Pa brushed the mud off his jeans. “Quicksand…” he grumbled. Suddenly, he looked up at me with an exasperated sigh. “Fifteen years old…unbelievable!” Pa turned and looked toward Lorrie. “Lorrie,” He snapped his fingers. “Get over here and stand beside Mark!” Pa’s voice was demanding. He put his hands on his hips and glared at me. “Now…” Pa started as he glared at Lorrie, then turned his attention back at me. “I only have one question…What in the BLAZES are you kids doing in here?!”
I turned and looked at Lorrie. Lorrie had this stupid look on her face that said this was all my fault! Of all the nerve! “I warned you this morning something like this would happen!” I turned and jabbed a finger at Lorrie. “I was in there because I was trying to save HER neck!”
Lorrie’s fists flew to her hips. “HAAAAAA, MY neck???? Well, you were SLEEPING under a tree instead of protecting me!”
“Oh yeah???” I turned to face Lorrie as I planted my hands on my hips. “Well, I wouldn’t have been here if it weren’t for you and your dumb Indian arrowhead idea!”
Lorrie’s eyes suddenly narrowed. She looked ready to spit fire. “Dumb Indian arrowheads?” She looked like smoke was coming through her nose. “Well, you shouldn’t have made that bet!” She screamed out.
We glared at each other for another several moments before our heads slowly turned to look at Pa. Pa crossed his arms and shook his head from side to side. “She’s got you there, son. YOU made the bet.”
I thought on this for a minute. “I made that bet ‘cause I was all riled up! I was riled because…because of that NOTE Lorrie sent me in class!”
“I was told to…” Lorrie started.
Suddenly, we both looked at each other. Then we crossed our arms and looked at Pa. “Because someone decided not to wish me a happy birthday and threw a surprise for me instead!” I declared.
That’s when Pa’s expression changed from bad…to worse…You see, it’s quite alright for a father to plant the blame on his son, but when a son plants the blame on his father…even if it’s just…well, there’s consequences. Pa got this really mean look on his face. He pointed a finger right at me (by the way, pointing with that expression is REALLY bad!) “You…” Then he pointed to Lorrie. “And you…” Then he pointed to trail, “Get on up that trail!” What can he say? He KNEW I was right!
But as Pa pointed, his hand froze in mid-air and he sucked in his breath. I closed my eyes and groaned, knowing another explosion was about to happen. “Mark Warren McCain!” Pa suddenly boomed. “Get to your horse!”
Needless to say, Lorrie and I did the only thing there was left to do. After all, it was our hides! We looked at each other and took off running, leaving Pa and Old Tony behind! We raced our horses back to Old Tony’s place.
I took off my shirt as I got to the water trough. Lorrie raised an eyebrow. I grinned. She had more mud on herself then I had on me. “Gee, you didn’t have to wallow in it!” I said.
“Very…funny!” Lorrie said sarcastically through narrow slits in her eyes. She suddenly got a hand full of water and splashed it on me. “Hey!” I shouted.
“Hey nothing!” Lorrie shouted back. I picked up the bucket full of water and started to throw it on her.
“Mark!” I heard a deep warning in Pa’s voice.
My hands froze. “Don’t you even think about it.” I just stood there as Pa walked up behind me. “Alright…put it down nice and easy!” I slowly lowered the bucket. Pa grabbed me by the arm. “Now, BOY…” I didn’t like Pa stressing the word boy. Seems that not too long ago he was commenting on me being more a man then a boy! “You get yourself down to the creek and get cleaned up!” Pa turned to Lorrie. “Lorrie, Tony here will warm you up a bath. He has some old clothes you can put on while yours dry out.”
“Oh Pa!” I griped. “Why does she get a bath while I have to wash up in the creek?”
Pa grabbed my ear. “Because,” he answered as he stared sternly into my eyes. “She’s a lady.”
“A lady? HA!” Pa pulled on my ear. “Pa, she’s a raving lunatic!” I shouted.
Pa gave a sharp tug on my ear. “Mark!” His eyes told me to clamp my mouth shut. “Now, you have until the count of ten to get to that creek before I turn you over my knee and…”
I hurried away. I went down to the creek and started to remove my pants, but they were so plastered in mud that I just jumped in – pants and all! I was ducking under water and swimming around when Pa suddenly showed up. Old Tony was right beside him. He looked around. “Alright, let me have ‘em!” Pa ordered.
I took off my pants and threw them to him. It just so happened that he was looking the other way when I threw them. They, of course, hit him right in the face. I threw a hand over my mouth to stifle my laughter, but it escaped anyhow. The look on Pa’s face was priceless! He had mud all over his face from where the pants had hit him. My chuckling turned into roars of laughter as he sputtered because some evidently got into his mouth. “Alright, come on out of there, boy!” Pa ordered.
But I couldn’t stop laughing! “Oh, P-Pa…It was an ac…ac…accident!” I suddenly fell back into the water as I laughed and laughed.
But Pa wasn’t laughing. “Alright boy! I said come on out of there…NOW!” He demanded as he started forward.
Tears rolled from my eyes and my sides hurt from laughing so hard. I made my way up onto the bank. When I was almost out of the water, Pa grabbed my arm and pulled me further up. “Alright. Put these clothes on, boy!” I took the clothes from Pa and began dressing. “Gee, Pa…Can’t you take a joke?” Pa put his hands on his hips and glared at me. I swallowed the rest of my laughter and forced myself to sober up. “I swear, Pa…It wasn’t on purpose!” I choked out as I continued swallowing the laughter that tried to rise out of my throat.
Then as I started dressing, I realized that the clothes in my hands weren’t mine. Of course they couldn’t have been. They looked fancier and newer. “Where’d these clothes come from?” It slipped out purely by accident.
I heard the gasp from Old Tony. I lifted my head up and saw him staring at me as I buttoned the shirt. “They fit me really well.”
“Shawn!” Old Tony whispered. “Oh, Shawn!” I stared as the expression on Tony’s face turned to some sort of happiness. Then he hurried toward me. He put his hands onto my shoulders and stared into my eyes. “You’re not…” Suddenly, a pained look came to his face and he turned and walked away. He went to a tree and stood there with his back toward us. He buried his face in his hands.
I looked up at Pa for guidance. He motioned for me to go to him. I softly walked up behind him. “Mr. Tony?” I said softly.
Old Tony slowly removed his hands from his face and lifted his head. He turned and looked at me. Pains of remembrance were in his eyes. “He was fifteen when he died.” Tony’s voice broke. He could hardly speak. He walked to a fallen log and sat down. I sat down on the grass in front of him. “Fifteen years old. He was the same size of you. Oh, Shawn loved to play that guitar…until this morning, the house had been silent from music since he died ten years ago.” Tony looked straight forward as he remembered back.
“He had a voice, that boy.” Tony nodded. “The kids would come from all over to listen to him sing. He’d go into town one Saturday a month and sing at the livery. Men and women would bring their families in from the ranches. They’d all gather to hear Shawn sing. ‘He’s gonna make it big someday!’ That’s what I heard from the townfolk.”
I was surprised when his raspy, old voice began singing in a little more than a whisper.
Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull'd by the moonlight have all pass'd away!
Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life's busy throng,
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Then there was silence. I saw a tear escape the old man’s moist eyes. It slipped, unbidden, down his cheek. He bit his lip and sighed. “He could sing, that boy. He sure could sing.”
I waited for more, but no more was said. I turned and looked at Pa. He nodded. Somehow, Pa knew it was time for Tony to speak the truth. “What happened?”
My question split the air like a sharp knife. Tony’s eyes suddenly filled with tears as he stared at me. “We took a trip…he and I. I wanted to take him to Santa Fe. They had a theater there and I thought maybe they’d be interested in his voice. Oh, I had dreams for that boy…When he was little, I imagined that someday he’d work this farm, but his mother saw right away that he could never be just a farmer. His mother loved that boy.” Tony put a hand to his eyes. “They loved Shawn! They said there were classes he could take there. I planned on sending him to live in the boarding house when he was sixteen. On the way home, we stopped at a stream. Shawn was so thirsty…so thirsty…”
I watched the regret return on Tony’s face. He shook his head sadly. “About ten days later, that boy was so sick…he had the shivers and the visions so bad. He couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t leave him to go for a doctor.” Tony’s voice broke. He stood and went to the tree. He planted his hand firmly on the trunk of the tree and leaned into it as his shoulders shook with sobs. “Oh Shawn, why did you go away?” He cried. My eyes filled up with tears as I listened to him let the grief and the mourning from the last ten years escape him.
I turned and looked at Pa. Pa rushed to Tony, sensing Tony needed somebody to hold on to. Pa put a hand on his shoulder and Tony turned. He grabbed onto Pa and wrapped his arms around Pa’s middle. I watched as Pa consoled him as Tony cried harder then he’d probably ever cried. Pa stayed silent as his own eyes filled with tears. He looked at me from above Tony’s shoulder as he held him. I saw hidden emotions in Pa’s own eyes. I turned from him and wept.
It was quite awhile before Old Tony finally released Pa. Tony wiped at his eyes and said he’d go up to the house and see how Lorrie and Micah were getting along. “I’ll make some hot tea for the boy. Their clothes will have to dry out by the fire.”
I started to go. My heart ached for the old man. Suddenly, Pa said, “Mark, wait a minute.” I stopped, but didn’t turn. Pa walked up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders as we watched Tony leave.
“Why Pa?” I asked simply.
“He never grieved. All these years he held that grief inside him. It festered and boiled. The more years that passed, the meaner he became. He was filled with grief and…he needed someone here at the right time.”
“The way he clung to you, Pa. It was like a child clinging to his mother!” I turned around quickly and looked in Pa’s eyes. Whatever else I was about to say suddenly died when I saw the look on Pa’s face.
“Grief…like that Tony was carrying…Well, it’s a terrible thing.” Pa put an arm around me as we started walking toward the house. “Sometimes, son, a man…no matter how strong he is…needs someone to hold him. Losing your child is probably the biggest grief there is.”
“Will he be better now Pa?” I asked.
“Oh Mark, ten years of grief doesn’t go away in a day. But when he’s ready to let the rest of it out, I hope we…or somebody…is here to help him.” My heart was heavy as I thought on this. “Pa?” I stopped suddenly. Pa looked down into my face. “Have you…” I didn’t finish my question.
But somehow Pa knew. He simply nodded. “I have, son.” He rested a hand on my cheek. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
Arm-in-arm, we walked toward the house. As we got closer, Blue Boy came into sight. “Now, about this dirty, filthy horse of yours…” Pa said as he cleared his throat.
“Uh…gee, Pa…I think I’m getting a chill!” I started to hurry up to the house.
But Pa grabbed my shirt collar. I jerked back beside him. “Not so fast, cowboy! How’d that animal get so dirty?”
“Well, you see…Lorrie and I…” I rubbed a hand against the back of my neck. “Well, the mud puddles are…”
“It’s been a dry year.”
“Oh, yeah. Well…” Pa put his hands on his hips and looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Well…” I started again.
Pa nodded as he folded his arms over his chest. “I think you’ve covered that part.”
“Lorrie made me race. She…She…” I saw my chance and took it. I rushed to the house.
Behind me, I heard Pa shout. “You can run, but you can’t hide! We live under the same roof you know!”
Boy, did I know! And right now, I knew that tonight I’d have plenty of cleaning to do!
Later that evening, as we rode home together, I grew quiet as I remembered back to when I had had the disease that killed Tony’s son. “What are you thinking about, son?”
“When we were talking tonight, the same Old Tony was back. But I could tell it was more from habit then from need to.” I glanced over at Pa. “Pa, I was thinking today about when I had the fever. I remembered our ride out here and our time alone together under the tree. Remember that?”
“I’ll cherish it in my heart forever, son.” Pa nodded.
“Well…then I see Old Tony and the results of the fever in his life. Then I wonder if I had died…” I lowered my head. I couldn’t put my thoughts into words. “Well, I mean I wonder if you…”
Blue Boy suddenly stopped. And I realized it was because Razor had stopped. Pa lined razor up with Blue Boy then looked at me. “Son…” Pa put a hand on my shoulder. I saw the answer in his eyes. He didn’t know how he would have turned out. Instead of telling me that, he said, “It’s not good to look on the road behind us. There’s no looking back. We’ve come so much further since then.”
I nodded in understanding. We smiled at each other. “Now…let’s go home.”
I nodded. “Let’s race!” I said.
“Okay,” Pa answered.
“Loser has to cook and do the dishes!”
“Mark McCain!” Pa warned.
“Oh…” I said as Blue Boy started hobbling around. “Sorry…some lessons…”
“Uh huh!” Pa nodded. Then he gave Blue Boy a hard swat and we raced forward. Our laughter rang out in the night as we rode over the hill. Then we stopped and looked down onto the ranch we called home.
Pa and I looked at each other. This is how it had all started in North Fork. “Well, it’s new and mighty fine country, Pa.”
Pa gave a single nod as he slapped a hand on my back. Then we started down the hill towards home.
*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
Which Way'd They Go
around The McCain Ranch